Quick-Thoughts: John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

John Cassavetes Marathon Part III of V

This is like experiencing the busy anxiousness of the “I’ve abandoned my child!” scene from Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood stretched out into a whole feature-length’s time. John Cassavetes, what in the world have you done here…

I can’t emphasize enough how Gena Rowlands’ performance here is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen in history. Clearly, her character Mabel is under some sort of mental illness, but not one that’s necessarily “dangerous” as the characters in the film make it out to be in its influence on others, but it does seem to encourage her to drink. It gives her a polarizingly melancholic flamboyance around company, but there’s a core issue outside of the alcoholism that I believe the film is attempting to address more carefully, an issue that I believe Rowland conveys perfectly by improvising these subtle, little gestures, as if cries of help are trapped within her unusual quirks. 

A Woman Under the Influence would be incomplete though without Peter Falk’s also legendary performance as a truculent and frankly insensitive husband named Nick. To me, he’s the perpetrator to be blamed for Mabel’s sorrow. Clearly, the two love each other, but their failure to express that is what has led to these unusual character traits which have resulted in dire conflict. Nick’s response to Mabel’s repetitious oddness motivates his violent personality that involves occasionally shouting and hitting her, especially in front of guests. Yet, that’s the issue at hand: family members and friends witness this many times throughout the film and nobody does a damn thing because of their time period’s social normalization for “privacy”; this made bystanders utterly powerless when it came to intruding on toxic relationships.

The true hellish mockery of this affair, however, ends up lying in the fact that Maple is ultimately the one punished for this very flawed relationship, and is sent to a mental hospital for 6 months, where she is treated with outdated practices such as “shock therapy”. Despite Nick being just as if not more troublesome than Maple, he ends up still on top, being the one in command, being the one to make the big decisions, and being the one to appear like the sane pawn in the equation, even with witnesses around to interpret it all. John Cassavetes was woke back then! 

I think the microscopic amount of beauty that can be found in this movie among the acid rain of sheer torture is how Mabel and Nick’s kids respond to the situation towards the end. It’s interesting how children seem to be the only ones who can rightfully understand the situation between two parents in this movie, and they realize what is happening to their mom and the way she’s been treated is wrong, even if they fully don’t understand why; it’s almost like a spiritual feeling to them, a natural instinct. Yet, the world is set cruel, and the kids don’t really have a say in what goes on around the household, even when they try. The people involved in this couple’s lives don’t want to “truly” help them and the children simply can’t. Sheesh.

Anyways, it’s a masterpiece; another agonizing masterpiece from John Cassavetes. I’m starting to feel like I should’ve never done this marathon, because it’s starting to eat me up inside. 

Verdict: A+

John Cassavetes Ranked, My All-Time Favorite Movies

“A Woman Under the Influence” is now available to stream on The Criterion Channel, HBO Max and Kanopy.

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