I’ll admit right out of the gate that Cassavetes has not been my cup of tea in the past. I saw Shadows (1959) several years ago and had a hard time focusing. I also watched The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and just really found it to be a nasty, ugly film. I understand that there are many who find these films to be masterpieces, but I didn't particularly like them. One film I've been avoiding is A Woman Under the Influence, which is considered to be one of Cassavetes’s best films and one of the watershed moments, especially in American Cinema of the 1970’s. I’ve been aware all along of the standing of Gena Rowlands’s performance as one of the best of that decade. Yet, I was still avoiding this film as I just really didn’t want to go through the ordeal of watching it. I came in with low expectations but came away with a high appreciation for it. It’s the first Cassavetes film that I can honestly say I appreciate, and in fact, applaud.
A Woman Under the Influence is a about a woman named Mabel (Rowlands), her husband Nick (Peter Falk), and their 3 children. To put it mildly- Mabel has issues. She drinks too much and is probably an alcoholic. She is also severely unstable and could probably be considered bi-polar or schizophrenic as well. She is a stay at home mom and her husband is a blue collar worker. This film is an examination of this woman and her relationships to her husband, her kids, her extended family and her connection/disconnection to reality. Cassavetes is less interested here in particular storylines and is focused on the psychological breakdown of Mabel and her familial incapacitation. From the very beginning of the film we realize this woman is not right, and she’s going to get worse.
Of course the film’s impact is probably greater because of the way it’s filmed. I’ll be honest- this film was really difficult for me to sit through. It’s probably one of the most arduous films I’ve ever sat through, in fact. It’s long. It’s raw. It’s disjointed and at times clumsy, but I couldn’t look away from it. Watching a film that conveys the sorts of raw emotions this one does surely doesn’t stray too far from other directors who work with intense feelings, like Bergman. But, Bergman is far more composed cinematically and enwraps the viewer with a “comfortable presentation”. Cassavetes’s unsteady camerawork and grainy stock adds an ugliness to the already difficult proceedings. Even the way the compositions are put together are difficult to watch. People are not framed in their entirety. We get scenes of people that are filmed in close quarters, where people’s heads are not in full view, nor their bodies. We always see portions of people not their entire selves. Editing of course is also given short shrift. Scenes carry on and linger beyond that which is considered conventional. All of this adds a claustrophobia to the entire film. Even this, though, works towards the film's end goals. It feels part of the means to the end.
Because of how emotionally rough the film is, it’s hard to really know how to evaluate the performances because there is just so much that feels un-edited and rough. Rowlands is heartbreaking and annoying, true and false. She keeps you on your toes as you’re not sure what you’re going to see next, but sometimes I felt like I was watching a performance. At other times my heart was breaking for this woman. Peter Falk is tremendous, and probably a bit more consistent, but I’m not sure I always bought his interactions with his children. Taken together, I think the ordeal of watching this film is what stands out the most for me. It’s devastatingly uncomfortable and not like anything else I’ve ever seen and it's the intensity of the film that makes the biggest impact. I think it’s both flawed and a masterpiece at the same time, and really the full weight of the story isn’t felt until the final 20 minutes or so. I don’t think I’ll ever want to see it again, but I don't think I'll ever be able to forget it.