Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Woman Under The Influence (1974) DVD / a John Cassavetes film; starring Peter Falk & Gena Rowlands

Mentally speaking, Mabel Longhetti isn't all there. And it's not that hard to tell. Though coherent enough to hover around the lives of her husband Nick and their three small children, there's simply no question that the woman's off kilter. Nick doesn't want to hear that his wife's crazy. He'd like to pretend there's nothing wrong and wants to prove to himself and others that his wife's alright, going so far as to invite his co-workers over for supper where Mabel's abnormalities promptly dissolve any argument about her condition. It's not just her communication patterns which inevitably devolve into an enigmatic series of hisses and grunts when she can't express herself. It's her terrifying lack of personal boundaries. Evidenced on a routine basis and ranging from shamelessly hailing pedestrians from the middle of a busy street to casually picking up strangers at a local bar for a one-nighter, she's consistently detached from reality, behaving on a different plain of judgement and discretion from everyone around her.

When her actions incite a neighbor to press charges following an afternoon in which the man observes her unsteady manner around his children, Mabel is ultimately confronted by two individuals unwilling to forebear anymore of her distressing antics--Nick's mother and a family physician. She doesn't go quietly. But when she is finally committed for psychiatric treatment, Nick takes it hard. His work relationships suffer as he comes to grips with the state of his family. His children, having existed very much in the middle of it all (literally so on many occasions), try to adjust to a life almost as frightening and unpredictable as the one they had before. Mabel's internment isn't a permanent one however and after a six-month long period under observation, she's released under tentative guidelines. The night of her return, a big party is thrown with family and guests all ready to welcome her home. It's a bit awkward but they make the effort, hoping to confront a rehabilitated Mabel.

John Cassavetes broke all the rules. Maybe the most auteur director of the American film industry's independent movement, a feat setting him on par with many international New Wave-ists, Cassavetes' movies weren't always the most popular nor the most well-received. In America during the 1960's and 70's, they were rarely box office hits and never debuted to large audiences. He was deemed a director who enabled his actors with too much leverage and his unfashionable, formless cinematic style seemed too unkempt for filmgoers. But today seen in retrospect, Cassavetes is a legendary figure, the Godard/Bergman/Antonioni of America. Critic Kent Jones in his essay "The War At Home" went so far as to say that "A whole generation of critics misunderstood Cassavetes so spectacularly that the ones who are still around are probably too embarassed to take a second look." (Jones). With his hyperrealistic mode of communicating themes and ideas, Cassavetes represented a sort of déclassé America, a place where the vagaries of everyday life are as frightening as the nightly news and then some. And indeed there are a great many uncomfortable situations in this movie which not only bury any semblance of theatrical dramatics but eerily evoke the personal tragedy of everyday life. Cast in 'A Woman' are Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes wife) and Peter Falk (aka Colombo), the acting duo who not only starred in nearly all of Cassavetes' crucial films but helped fund the picture itself--Cassavetes was the epitome of an indie filmmaker, funding most of his movies from his own pocket and relying on non-union labor for production teams. Both leads are terrific, each nominated for Oscars, but it may be the supporting role of Katherine Longhetti, Nick's live-in mom played by Cassavetes own mother, who pinpoints the crux of the problem and stealthily steals a few of the more noteworthy scenes. Keenly observing the maelstrom of a marriage between Nick and Mabel, Katherine is the viewer's actor on screen ("that woman is cra-zy!!!"), eviscerating the deeply disturbing behavioral irregularities of both husband and wife. It's brilliant, not to be missed. (DVD WOMAN)

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