Monday, May 16, 2011

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes)

Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti.

Great films like "Sunset Blvd." and "Psycho". They have both shown 'madness' in a way both disturbing and doomed, uncontrollably fatal and in brutal askew. Both pictures solidified the fact, with utter exclamatory conviction, that being in such a mental state is synonymous with being 'done for' and you can't really do anything but inhabit its very delirious core. And although the latter statement was still further raised by "A Woman Under the Influence", this film, directed with raw attention to the essence of the story and characters rather than the overall aesthetics by John Cassavetes, is a revolutionary break-out party (a bit hyperbolic, I must admit) to the hidden side of this seemingly over-used cinematic theme of psychosis: That madness can also serve as a familial balance.

Peter Falk, which I have first seen playing himself in "Wings of Desire", delivered an unforgettable, emotionally powerful and quite underrated performance as the husband Nick. The character is a blue-collar worker striving to keep his family together, and by the sight of his sublimely pleading eyes, he means good for everyone. He immensely loves Mabel (Gena Rowlands), his wife, and his children even more so. But he is quite weary of Mabel and her slow drift into a self-losing basket case.

His weariness is quite valid, after all, and with the help of the shaky camera utilized by Cassevetes that sometimes even goes out of focus, he has established Mabel's initial sequence as she, panting, exaggerated, and worried, assists her children as they go with their grandmother into her car to go to her house. "I shouldn't have let 'em go", uttered by Mabel. This sequence, although it shows her unusual redundancy, does not really highlight her insanity but shows her neurotic tendencies. As we see her repeat instructions, mostly about her children's well-being and safety, and fast talk her way to her mother's attention, Gena Rowlands depicts Mabel's personality with a slight slant of ambiguity: Does she really mean every word?

"A Woman Under the Influence" is infused with such incredible sequences after another, mostly dominated by Ms. Rowlands' weird, pathetically disorienting glib of tongue. She wants to entertain Nick's friends. She immerses into childhood persona just to make children laugh. But ultimately, she is marked by sadness. Yes, she is mentally unstable, but did she ever wanted to be in such a condition?

Then, in a tolling decision lifted by frustration and exhaustion on Nick's part, he sent her to a mental institution. He then tries to care for his children himself. But as shown by the significant sequence in the beach, shot within a considerable distance and with a point of view not leveled to an adequate position, the film showed Nick's incompetence as an affecting parent. Of course, he loves his children more than anything else, but with things that needs tenderness and detailed caring, he is gravely lacking.

Through this sequence, not only was it suggested that Nick really misses his wife with her free-willing interaction with their kids, John Cassavetes, with his great characterization of Mabel, also made us audience miss her. Despite the deterioration of her mental health, as she left their house and was committed to an institution, she also left a hole in her family. For once we see, after her erratic mental episodes, her encompassing influence to Nick and their children. Her utility. Her vitality.

After watching "A Woman Under the Influence", I thought that the film is really much more about the essential presence of a mother in a family rather than it is about the complexity of madness. Yes, beneath its sheer depiction of deafening attempts to control an insanity-inflicted individual and its uneasy portrayal of mental instability, it's centered in the significance of a caring matriarch. Mabel may be raving mad, she may shout senseless phrases and dance in the tune of the "Swan Lake" atop a couch, but her importance echoes throughout the four corners of their house all the same.

And as suggestively shown in the final scene approached with a sense of suburban calm, Nick and Mabel will always stride to strive. And as they make their bed and close the curtains, they, after all that have transpired, are still in one piece. That is until something else do them part.


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