FILM (1974)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am


A Woman Under the Influence
Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Eddie Shaw
Director: John Cassavetes

'She's not crazy, she's unusual,' Peter Falk says of his screen wife, Gena Rowlands, near the start of A Woman Under the Influence. 'Don't ever say that she's crazy,' he adds. 'She can cook and she can sew.'

So begins John Cassavetes' masterful portrait of mental illness, sexual politics and social identity. As the story plays out, it becomes clear that Rowlands is mentally ill - but perhaps Falk is as well. The film becomes a nuanced examination of the subtleties of mental illness.

Cassavetes, who died in 1989, was a pioneer of American independent filmmaking. A successful television actor, he started funding his own films in the late 1950s. Films such as Shadows, Faces and Husbands were shot in a cinema verit?style that allowed the actors to perform in a natural way in front of the cameras.

Cassavetes once ran his own acting school, and he wanted to give film actors the liberty they enjoyed in the theatre. The resulting performances are filled with the spontaneity and unpredictability of real people.

Woman is a two-hander that's based around riveting acting by Rowlands - Cassavetes' wife - and Falk. Rowlands plays Mabel Longhetti, wife of blue-collar worker Nick and the mother of his children. Mabel is forgetful, emotionally driven and awkward in company. But she just about manages to stay on the right side of sane to get by in society. Meanwhile, Nick is in denial and continually tells his friends how happy the family is.

When Nick is forced to admit that Mabel's behaviour could endanger the children's welfare, he reluctantly has her committed for six months. But Nick's treatment of the children while she is away is also erratic, prompting the audience to ask why some people are considered 'normal' and others are judged insane.

The thrust of the argument is that as Nick holds down a job, he is socially acceptable and his dysfunctions are ignored.

Rowlands' potrayal of Mabel ranks among the great screen performances: she's edgy, vulnerable, feisty, delicate, angry, loving, scared, hurt - the full spectrum of humanity exists in her performance. An exponent of the Method style of acting, Rowlands (below, with Falk) knew the best way to portray insanity was by not trying to act insane. As far as Rowlands is concerned, Mabel is as normal as everyone else. 'I am a warm person!' she shouts when she feels her sanity is being questioned.

Cassavetes avoids the usual constraints of dramaturgy. His work 'destroys a century's worth of film theory, screenwriting tips and film orthodoxy', wrote US critic Kent Jones. 'In Cassavetes, every blink, every shrug, every hesitation counts and moves the story forward. Cassavetes rides the whims and mysterious impulses of humanity like a champion surfer.'

Woman was originally conceived as a play, but Rowlands felt it would be too demanding to perform night after night. No one wanted to fund the film because of the subject matter, so Cassavetes mortgaged his house. Falk, impressed by the script, also lent him some money.