Madwomen: A Woman Under The Influence

Some say that when faced with internal turmoil, men will externalise and women will internalise: “women get sad, men get mad”. This almost ideological concept is used in many of John Cassavetes’ works – whether it’s the deteriorating alcoholic, Myrtle, in OPENING NIGHT or the short-fused Richard in FACES. But nowhere are these two divergents so clearly crystallised as they are in the 1974 film, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE.

Cassavetes stated that he never intended A WOMAN… to be a political film, but viewed retrospectively it has much to say about gender issues on the domestic front. To put the film in its historical context, it was released in the same year as a landmark court case that set the precedent for equal pay for women in the workplace. Whilst the 60s had marked a shift in identity both culturally and politically in America, there was still much to be addressed.  Whilst not an overtly political film, A WOMAN… can and has been read in feminist terms as addressing some of its contemporary imbalances.

… Mabel’s increasingly odd mannerisms and actions make Nick uncomfortable and he feels forced to take drastic action …

The film revolves around an upper working class couple, Mabel (the inimitable Gena Rowlands) and Nick (the understated but wonderful Peter Falk). Mabel and Nick love each other very much but Mabel’s increasingly odd mannerisms and actions make Nick uncomfortable and he feels forced to take drastic action against his wife.  What is eternally fascinating about Cassavetes is that his characters are never simply good or bad. In any other film, events would unfold as a melodrama, Mabel would be seen as a straightforward victim oppressed by both society, and her husband and Nick would be the cold-hearted law man. In a Cassavetes film, nothing is ever that simple. The audience might lazily try to pigeon-hole the characters, but Cassavetes never lets his audience feel safe in their preconceptions. In long takes, scenes are always pushed so that the audience must continually re-evaluate their character loyalties. Nick is both oppressor and conflicted husband, and as an audience we endlessly question: is Mabel truly mad, or just misunderstood?

… a film that seeps into your subconscious, and urges you to glance beneath the surface of life …

The toll on the family unit is portrayed with pathos, and pulls at the heart without being explicitly manipulative. Whilst stereotypes are drawn upon, no one character is ever two dimensional. A WOMAN… is not an easy film, but for that reason it is not so simple to discard after viewing. It is a film that seeps into your subconscious, and urges you to glance beneath the surface of life. Mabel’s madness is never resolutely confirmed or denied. and this inconclusiveness in a typical Hollywood film would often be maddening; but in a Cassavetes film it offers verisimilitude and substantive satisfaction.

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