What, exactly, is Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) under the influence of? A Woman Under the Influence depicts someone who is not happy with life, and the variety of reasons displayed imply there is no real answer. It is that portion of living that inflicts pain and disgust without any reason for it. What hell life can be. She is convinced that her happiness relies on pleasing her husband, but her erratic behaviours and frequent desire to be as happy and helpful as possible have her family and friends worried. It is the good intentions of a woman under the influence of love, or something, that is driving her towards insanity. John Cassavetes often blurs the line of passion and madness, but he does it best here.
Perhaps it is my favourite of his works because of how homely and intimate we are in the lives of Mabel and Nick (Peter Falk). We see them dine with friends, care for their children and argue with relatives. It is natural and flows freely and, crucially, has an honest intent behind it. We are given unremitting access to their lives and their strained relationship. Conflict between the two is not through conscious actions but through their inability to understand one another. It is not something they are against; they are truly trying and have good intentions. Cassavetes often demonstrates that the right way of thinking can cause the most damage, especially when experiencing an event or feeling they have never encountered before. Mabel and Nick are testing one another through unconscious choices. They are doing what their routine has presented them, and they are not sure how to adapt.
Take Mabel’s return home for instance. The bond of family is a worthwhile celebration, and surely something both Mabel and Nick would enjoy if they weren’t struggling to rekindle their love in the face of worrying emotional and mental strife. Her erratic behaviours and not-so-polite mannerisms are the causation of something out of her control, and Cassavetes utilises this as a tool to show the external pain it causes her loved ones, and the internal struggle she is not capable of handling. A Woman Under the Influence is an exceptionally tough watch, but it is well-realised and unflinching. It makes for a thoroughly remarkable and moving piece, one that relies on our love of the characters, who are written well and suffering through no fault of their own.
That is the main attraction of A Woman Under the Influence. These are not bad people, but they are straddled by harsh problems and difficult issues. It makes it easy to relate and care for Mabel and Nick, who are struggling to raise their children, balance their books and bring good into the world. Sometimes that is too much to ask for, it is the tipping point that pushes people over the edge. For Mabel, it does appear to be too much, and her influence is something she can neither control nor cater to. Nor can Nick, it mounts his frustrations and changes who he is and how he lives. Some moments in life are out of our hands. How they make us feel and what they change in our routines are consequential, but unavoidable. A Woman Under the Influence is, to me, about making peace with that. It is the mature response, to accept change and roll with the punches.