When does neurotic behavior lapse into madness? In A Woman Under the Influence, we are introduced to an inscrutable, emotionally vulnerable woman named Mabel (Gena Rowlands) as she goes through the rituals of everyday life: preparing for an evening alone with her husband Nick (Peter Falk), flirting with a receptive bar patron, meeting her children at the school bus stop. There is a pervasive undercurrent of volatility in her personality, perhaps symptomatic of a surfacing instability, that invariably cause people to withdraw from her. She imposes herself on one of Nick’s coworkers to dance with her during a spaghetti “breakfast”, embarrassing the baffled guest. She becomes verbally abusive to strangers who will not stop her the current time. She forces Mr. Jensen, the reluctant father of her children’s friends, to participate in their games. Mabel is isolated from the people who are closest to her, desperately reaching out for validation, only to be humored with condescension, or shamed into silence. We see a glimpse of her despair as she seeks reassurances from her family that she is a good mother. Her determination in sending the children to school on time is a constructed facade – an attempt to provide structure to her crumbling psyche – a self-affirmation that, despite her acknowledged “anxiety spells”, she is fundamentally in control. But it is soon evident that she is collapsing under the weight of her private demons, her own self-induced influences, and Nick makes the agonizing decision to have her institutionalized.
John Cassavetes’ approach to filmmaking as cinema vérité captures the honesty and integrity of human emotion unembellished. Using medium shots, Cassavetes places us in the center of the milieu: a guest at the dinner table, a coworker listening to Nick’s guilt and denial over his wife’s commitment, a party reveler welcoming the recuperated Mabel home. His camera movement is deliberate, using panning sequences to reflect the chaos of the situation. Initially, we see a disorganized Mabel sending the children away with their grandmother, and later responding to the doctor’s inquiry with resistance and hysteria. However, after sending Mabel away, it is Nick who loses self-control, instigating an argument that leads to an unfortunate accident. In the end, after an awkward homecoming, Nick and Mabel return to the distraction of arranging the dinner table, attempting to bring some semblance of order into their disrupted lives – reconciling with their own culpability and failures – alone in the room, together.
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