A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Dir. John Cassavetes. Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Lady Rowlands

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This is a well-known bit of trivia, but the word “hysteria” can be traced back to the Greek for womb, “hustera.” When the word hysteria was invented, it was thought of as a problem for women; because of the presence of a womb, a woman was more liable to lose her head than a man. She would be emotional and irrational where a man could keep his cool. And so it is that “She’s hysterical” has a funnily tautological meaning to it. For most of A Woman Under the Influence, one wonders if Mabel (Gena Rowlands) would have gotten a better deal if the way she was wasn’t derived as a particularly feminine sort of crazy. If she could be crazy in the way that her husband, Nick (Falk) is, then things would proceed apace. And since she is crazy in a totally different way – and since her not-quite-there-himself husband gets to be the final judge of this growing breakdown – she will disappear for a long stretch of her own life, like this is the American version of L’avventura or Picnic at Hanging Rock with a hasty tacked-on sequel.

Swan Lake is a marvelous iteration of feminine hysteria, in which the protagonist rather historically throws herself to her death while the music around her swells. (For this reason Black Swan makes for a fascinating if slightly inadequate companion film for A Woman Under the Influence.) Swan Lake features in the film twice. In its first iteration, it’s almost got a slapstick feeling to it; Mabel is hosting a quickly thrown together party for her kids and a couple of their small neighbors. The other children’s father is there as well, looking on a little nervously at Mabel. It doesn’t get better when she encourages the kids to “die” for him. It’s a funny scene – Rowlands is quickly surrounded by five or six little people who slowly fall over and lay on the ground for a moment – but it’s also not funny at all. The neighbor seems to understand that indulging in this level of morbidity with the kids isn’t nice; perhaps he’s running over the full gamut of party games in his mind and thinking of all the ones which don’t encourage a group of elementary age kids to die in front of their parents. Sensing that the party is foundering, Mabel gathers her charges together and gets them to play dress-up, suggesting a pirate theme. Dancing and dress-up at a kids’ party: so far, so good. Almost immediately one of her kids runs downstairs naked. About half of them are more or less naked, while the other obliviously smack at one another with their pirate swords.

Earlier in the film, Mabel is greeted by Nick and about a dozen of his coworkers, who are hungry after unexpectedly having to work a double shift. (Nick is particularly displeased about working; Mabel has already sent the kids off to her mother’s so that the two of them can have a romantic evening in. Nick also waits to call Mabel until she is well into her alcohol quota for the night and presumably deep into her disappointment.) They eat spaghetti together just after dawn. Mabel seems jittery. People she talked to three weeks ago she has no memory of seeing before. She goes down the table and tries to manufacture a good time. People talk about their kids and their wives. Everyone has a glass of wine, and people tear at loafs of bread to get a good hunk. A couple men sing arias and get thunderous applause from their fellows. All this while, the viewer is seated either at Mabel’s right or at Nick’s, as if we are special guests to witness this impromptu banquet, or as if we’re scientists who can see Nick’s temper beginning to boil or Mabel’s facade of normality shudder under the pressure of playing hostess to so many people with so little time to plan. It ends badly when she goes up to one man, repeatedly telling him how handsome he is. One doesn’t get the sense that she’s trying to fool around with him so much as tease him a little, maybe make him a little more comfortable. But Nick cracks. He screams at her. The blood leaves the scene’s face; Nick, for his part, seems significantly less worked up once he’s gotten her to siddown and shaddup.

These two incidents lay heavily on our minds as we consider Mabel’s hysteria. She has failed at mothering, having allowed her children and more importantly the children of other people to act inappropriately while on her watch. She has also been sexually immodest, acting a little flirtatiously with a man she doesn’t know – a black man, which I imagine the ’70s audience would have made more of than anyone in the film itself does. (The night before, we can safely assume that she slept with a man she didn’t know, who bails just in time for Nick to not see him that morning. This weighs less heavily in our evaluation of whether or not she’s “crazy,” I think, simply because it’s not evidence that anyone else in the film can work with. Nick never finds out, and so he can’t use it as a piece of evidence to condemn her with.) Nothing she’s done has been beyond the pale, but these little moments, added up, presumably, with similar incidents over some stretch of time, get her sent away. Mabel’s little sins, her stereotypically feminine sins, are put under a microscope, and from that skewed perspective she seems manifestly irresponsible, fully under the spell of feminine hysteria. It’s hard not to think about how she acts with her children when they come off the school bus. For a couple of minutes beforehand, she wanders around the road where the bus should be coming up, asking terrified strangers if they can give her the time. But her children arrive, and she beams, and waves at the bus, and hugs them each as they get out. Whatever is shaky in her foundation has nothing to do with how much she loves her kids; it’s one of the few scenes with her which is shot outside, and the only one which is set outside for her during daylight outside her property. She still acts like someone who’s been exchanging sleep for espresso for the past couple weeks, but she looks healthier. She may not know what time it is or when the bus is coming, precisely, but she knows that the bus will show up there. She has some certainty to hang on to in the routines of others, beyond the unpredictability of her husband’s choices and the effect they have on the household.

Later on, when Nick has had Mabel committed, he takes his kids to the beach with a coworker to help look after them. The goal is to give them a good time, to help them take their minds off their absent mother. He pulls them out of school for the day, but only once they’ve gone into the building. The principal seems anxious to let them go. It’s early spring; the beach itself looks absolutely frigid, and everyone, Nick included, is bundled up a little in towels and jackets. His daughter tries to play with the coworker and one of the sons; Nick almost literally drags her back to him and his other son, for reasons which are unknowable. Cassavetes has shot, to this point, a great majority of the film in close-ups. By now we know every canyonesque aspect of Falk’s saggy face, and recognize the characteristic Rowlands squint, but these scenes on the beach are shot from distance, to gain perspective on our people. We don’t hear much of what’s said once they set up on this lonely, cold, wet stretch of beach, though it seems like the primary sounds are still the gravelly, guttural ones Nick has a fluency in. On the way home, Nick opens up a beer. One of his sons asks if he can have some. Nick proffers it to him, cautioning him against having more than a sip. (He vocalizes something along the lines of “It’ll help you fall asleep faster.”) By the end of the ride back, all of his kids – none of them who look older than eight or nine – have had some. He doesn’t even care enough to enforce his rule about only taking a sip. In the absence of his wife, the only person who can be outraged or concerned is the viewer, and we’re as impotent as the rest of these people, unable to choose which parent would be able to support the three kids through the rest of their adolescence.

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