Cinema Club: A Woman Under the Influence

Posted on June 26, 2013

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Die for Mr Jensen

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

‘Just be yourself’.

John Cassavetes’ 1974 classic is a harrowing watch. No, I don’t mean harrowing in the gorey sense, or harrowing in the ‘it’s really terrible’ sense. This is harrowing in the most human of ways, much like ‘Notes from the Underground’ or the lyrics to the last Des Ark album. On the very surface, it is the story of a mother seeping further and further into insanity, and the problems that are experienced by the people around here in their attempts to cope. That is just the surface however, and so many subjects pop their heads out as the probable main theme that it becomes increasingly clear that this is a film about people. Gena Rowlands wonderfully plays Mabel, a wife and mother of 3 kids who frequently displays erratic behaviour. This builds and builds until her husband Nick, played by Peter Falk, feels he has no choice but to have her committed. He then struggles to look after their children, and the film bubbles up to the climax of Mabel’s homecoming, a film closing half hour that is uncomfortable viewing from start to finish. The film ends with Mabel tenderly putting their children to bed, and Nick being unable to tell her that he loves her. Got that? Let’s see what it tells us about our own species.

As already mentioned, this is a film about a whole plethora of subjects. Mental health, fulfillment, traditional gender roles and the front they require, a corrupted idea of happiness and much more. Obviously, this is a film about human beings and the fact that we set ourselves up for so much that we are almost inevitably going to fail to reach our expectations. Throughout the film, Mabel is referred to as all manner of crazy by every other character. Sure, her behaviour could possibly be described as eccentric, but it is the subsequent actions of all around her that really clue us in to the human psyche, and a number of things become glaringly obvious as a result.

The first of these is that human beings have absolutely no idea how to cope with mental health. Sure, this film was made in 1974, but a lot of the ideas still ring true today. We like to pat ourselves on the back and say that we’re much more educated now, but the vast (seriously, vast) majority of people still have absolutely no idea how to act when in the company of someone with a mental illness. We are scared by it, to the point of obsession. The key to it all, of course, can be seen in a single three letter word in the sentences previously. That word is ‘act’. No one should ever be thinking ‘how should I act with this person’, because then it becomes just that, an act. The moment you begin to think about your behaviour in the presence of someone, the more forced and fake you will become. Sure, I’m a total hypocrite here, but the fact remains. It is unfortunately a natural human reaction it would seem.

All of this is most clearly seen in Mabel’s coming home celebration. It starts off as a packed house, with seemingly every single person known to the couple invited. After some swaying on the decision however, Nick (or to be more precise, Nick’s mum) sends everyone home except the closest of family. Mabel gets home, understandably nervous and reluctant. All of the family members then swarm upon her, offering up overly rehearsed speeches of encouragement and kindness. It is the most ‘walking on eggshells’ beginning I have seen, with everyone desperate to say the right thing. When they finally sit down, Mabel begins to behave no different to her previous self, and Nick attempts to console her by telling her to ‘be herself’, before exploding and bellowing to everyone about how they must have normal conversations. It is a hugely powerful scene.

It’s also an insight into us all. We have no idea how to behave anymore, because we’re all mostly pre-occupied with the perceptions of everyone else. We want to say the right thing, do the right thing, but along the way we’ve forgotten that doing the right thing 100% of the time is unrealistic and constricting. By obsessing about being normal, we become abnormal.

Which sums up what I’m trying and certainly failing to say. Throughout the film, Nick clings desperately to his idea of happiness, of his normal life with his wife, kids, job and workmates. It is this very idea of ‘normal’ that has irreparably damaged humans to the point of no return. We have abandoned our natural urges in the desire to achieve what we perceive as a normal life, and this is possibly the least natural thing possible. Married couples stay together when it is detrimental to their health, all because they don’t want to leave what they perceived as their normal life and normal happiness. A kid will go against every instinct they have in order to fit in and be normal. This is by no means a speech about not fitting in, more a lament that the idea ever existed in the first place. In ‘A Woman Under the Influence’, the only people who seem to be natural in the entire film are Mabel who is assumed insane and the children, who are potentially damaged because of the violence and uncertainty that surrounds them. Life eventually ruins life.

This all may sound depressing and negative, but it shouldn’t be. ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ is an incredibly powerful film, the sort of film that cinema should be existing for. No glitz, no glamour, just grit and real human life. It is swamped with the human emotions and thoughts that we tell ourselves we don’t experience on a daily basis. We tell people to be themselves, but in fact more often than not we want them to be our perfect image of them. It is an intense film, an uncomfortable film, but ultimately an important one. A harrowing, but important one.

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Posted in: Cinema, Reviews