When A Woman Under the Influence first came out in the mid seventies, many rejoiced in its honest and realistic depiction of marriage and family. Where Hollywood provided either ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ marriages, John Cassavetes’ masterpiece presented a much more truthful and complex image of love, madness and marriage. Mabel, first and foremost, loves her family. Mabel’s mental state appears to be deteriorating and as she becomes a concern to her family and several outsiders looking in, Nick, her devoted and exhausted husband is forced to make a difficult decision. The film is about protection, how we protect our children, our marriages and ourselves. It is not always an easy film to watch and there is little to no conclusion but this, in classic Cassavetes style, is a raw depiction of life. The film fuses stunning performances with realistic characters, a sense of desperation and an ounce of hope. Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk both give equally sensational performances as the central married couple who are fighting for their marriage and their happiness. The most moving element of A Woman Under the Influence is the fact that no matter how often we doubt the happiness or healthiness of their relationship, there is never any doubt that they are in love with one another. Cassavetes once stressed his belief that it is possible to be married, in love and unhappy, despite this not fitting into the conventional ideas of Hollywood narrative. A Woman Under the Influence was blatantly ground-breaking and remains continuously impacting and moving. The performances are striking and the atmosphere is toxic.
The majority of A Woman Under the Influence takes place in the family home. This makes us, the audience, feel incredibly claustrophobic; fully involved in the action. Cassavetes gave his actors and actresses a physical freedom on set that very few others would. The cameras followed the actors who remain the dictators of the action. Improvisation, playing a great part in Cassavetes personal vision and approach to cinema, enhances the characters and scenes that we witness. Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ wife as well as lead actress, has a fragile beauty that enhances the mental state of her character. Her beauty is clear but it seems to be hidden behind tired eyes and a nervous exterior. Peter Falk, best known for Columbo, gives a phenomenal performance as the equally fragile husband. Both Rowlands’ and Cassavetes’ own mothers feature in the film as the mothers of Mabel and Nick. They see the damage and the danger of the relationship from the outside, in a similar way to us. The subject matter is handled delicately and intelligently. As well as its real depictions of family life, the film was also praised for its portrayal of madness. Nothing is over-dramatised and there is very little that conforms to the narrative and stories we expect from cinema, but A Woman Under the Influence works for all of these reasons.
After watching A Woman Under the Influence and Shadows, Cassavetes’ first feature film and previous masterpiece, the influence Cassavetes had over Scorsese was apparent. Until now I looked to Scorsese, through his De Niro collaborations in particular, as the master of character and truth in American independent cinema. Now it is clear to me just how crucial Cassavetes’ is to the changes in American cinema and the birth of alternative cinema. He is an exciting and obsessive film maker who has influenced many. A Woman Under the Influence demonstrates everything wonderful about Cassavetes and his intentions as a director and film maker. Strong performances, exciting script work and unpredictable stories come together to make A Woman Under the Influence a cinematic victory.
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