Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Woman Under the Influence

I know very little about the director John Cassavetes, except that Martin Scorcese holds him in the highest regard. And since I hold Scorcese in the highest regard it's high time I see one of his films.

I got the sense from the Criterion packaging that the film might be out on the fashionable or artistic edge the 60-70s, something with high aspirations, but perhaps in the hands of a director with a too stylistic an agenda. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The film makes good on its promise to be edgy, challenging, different, but more than that it takes the viewer on a highly rewarding emotional journey on the level of character studies from the era like Five Easy Pieces, or Cool Hand Luke.

The woman in question is Mable, a wife and mother who may or may not be suffering from a mental illness. Her husband is domineering and manipulative yet we get the impression that he has all the best intentions. After we get this set-up down in the first 30 mins or so, we are treated to nearly an hour of Mable(Gena Rowlands) giving what must have been one of the most emotionally taxing performances in film history. In this hour we get to know Mable well which is to say we get to know her condition well and how it drives just about everyone around her to the brink.

The film is in 2 parts. Nearing the end of the first part the film reaches it's emotional climax as Mable comes more unhinged and is sent away. An interview with the director reveals that he feels her character to be more symptomatic of her social situation that of any mental problem, a revelation that is hard to swallow considering Mable's paranioa and muttering. Her dialogue though is at once damning and canonizing as while she seems to be cracking under the emotion strain of her family she nevertheless voices personal emotional epiphanies about her marriage that would make anyone go...huh. Her husband while having hit her on one occasion and yelled at her in front of friends, rises to a level approaching herioc in this unscored iconic scene that ends with an abrupt cut to the husband at work a soft country song playing in the background. Work is emotionally easy. It's home-life that requires real energy.

The second half of the film is Mable's return home. She struggles to keep her excitement in check, which makes her seem profoundly sad and pathetic. Incapable of seeing her this way, her husband takes her aside, from their family guests, to re-establish his control over her and snap her out of the sadness spell. By measures it works, until Mable is up on the sofa twirling about and humming a song. Their guests leave and the family returns to chaos, until right near the end when Mable, putting her children to bed becomes sweet and soft spoken.

"I'm worried about you" her son says to her has she tucks him into bed.

"Don't worry about me, I'm a grown up" is her reply. Which, when taken in context is the punchline to this 2 1/2 hour love story.

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