A Woman Under the Influence by, John Cassavetes, 1974
A Woman Under the Influence is more aggressively real than it is imagined. It’s a story of a woman, Mabel, benumbed by mental illness and how this has been misconstrued as a choice. It might be enough to feel loved even though one is mentally sick. But what happens when love fails to accept mental illness. Rather it is perceived as a kind of mood, which extends to the person’s entire being, that must be sealed off, away from public scrutiny and judgment.
The movie not only showcases the life of Mabel under the influence of her mental illness. But it also wants you to look at the life of her husband under the influence of being the savior of Mabel. Because he’s so buried in this kind of life, he fails to see Mabel, to accept her. Perhaps who he’s protecting is a figment of himself, his own image that he sees through her. And their children who know nothing, succeed at accomplishing what their father failed to do from the beginning: to stand up for her.
Maybe she is sure she can be perfectly happy just so long as she’s with her husband. Because they both share a private life. A life in which she feels certain her “craziness” is not serious but rather it’s what brings them closer. The playfulness of her personality that he claims others wouldn’t understand even though she means well.
If this is loving then the price is much too high when it is bereft of acceptance and expression. Cassavetes asserts the extent of such betrayal in a clever and realistic manner. Gena Rowlands plays the part of Mabel so intelligently. She’s expressive, energetic, and grounded to her character.
The film is largely psychological and touches on the distinction between self and illness and how the two are often blurred together to fit a narrative of how society chooses to see it. It’s the vivid nature of the film, the brilliant acting, and the cutting dialogue that portrays the complexities of a woman surviving for the sake of living.