A Woman Under the Influence

John Cassavetes described the foundational question for his 1974 film Woman Under The Influence as this: “How much do you have to pay for love?”. The film follows the life of a married couple, the Longhettis, in middle-class, suburban America. Nick Longhetti struggles to navigate the rapidly deteriorating mental health of his wife, Mabel Longhetti, played to perfection by Gena Rowlands (the director’s wife). In the opening scene, Nick introduces his wife to his colleague: ‘Mabel’s not crazy… she’s unusual, but she’s not crazy. So, don’t say she’s crazy!’ As the film chronicles the rise and fall of a woman persecuted by her mind, we are reminded of Andre Breton’s tragic love interest Nadja, transplanted behind a white picket fence.

Cassavetes’ style of cinematic realism has often been noted for its lack of form and here long, interrupted shots are unmediated by camera modulation. Within the context of Mabel’s slipping outside reality, Cassavetes depicts an often-uncomfortable exposure of a woman’s increasing interiority. Woman Under The Influence, as with Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) and Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), moves toward a cinema of the absurd. We follow Mabel as she impatiently waits for her children’s bus to arrive then we watch, horrified, as she chases down strangers for the time, heckling them as they run. Casavettes ends this prolonged scene of social absurdity with a touching scene as Mabel lifts her children from the school bus. The film feels electrically alive.

The film was originally conceived by Cassavetes’ wife, Rowlands, who asked her husband to write her a role “that would illustrate women’s struggles in the modern age”. As a response, A Woman Under the Influence documents the housewife’s entrapment within upwardly-mobile suburbia. Parallels have been drawn between Mabel’s character and Jim Stark in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Both are socially alienated, estranged from reality, and visibly in pain. However, Stark is able to further indulge in alienation through the solipsistic male journey. As a housewife, Mabel is trapped within the domestic. She cannot rebel, let go, and completely live outside of societal expectations as she would like – she is very much bound by her family and husband’s expectations.

Rowland’s performance encourages movement, liveliness and action from her surroundings that are both unnerving and fierce. Exaggerated physical movements and near inarticulateness culminate in a facial tic that combines raspberry with thumb jerk. We are reminded of her early career as a comedy actress. Mabel’s constant movement and kinetic dissonance occur to prevent a stilling of her surroundings for fear of having to confront her subconscious.

Mabel is straddling conformity and abjection – yet her marginality is her power, and she becomes the centripetal force of the film, around which all characters oscillate like a stage for a theatrical group. Her family and friends become characters who tiptoe around her madness, fearful of its contagion. Mabel wields this othering as a tragic power. Upon her return from mental rehabilitation, Mabel reveals she has undergone electroshock therapy. Sitting around a dining table, she asks her father, “Will you stand up for me?” The table falls silent as her family looks on, refusing to see her request as what it is – a tragic plea for recognition, for help. Like Nadja, Mabel embodies the soul in Limbo.

Watch A Woman Under the Influence as part of TANKtv’s ninth season, Conception.

Sign up here.