Food: I had no idea how relevant it would be to eat homemade spaghetti while watching this movie, but that is what I did. A cozy Friday night in called for inexpensive carb-loaded dinner and it was great. Fitting that – due to the fact that I am not overly domesticated and cooking is not my strong suit – spaghetti/pasta dishes are my go-to. Mabel is the same, and this really tells us more than you would think about her character in this film.
Film: John Cassavete’s “A Woman Under the Influence” is an intimate story about family life, specifically when it is not so shiny and nice. It’s the story of a housewife who begins to unravel under the pressure of maintaining a household of young children, a blue collar hard working husband and the pressure to present a certain exterior to fit in socially.
Left alone one night, after giving the children to her mother for the night, Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) frantically smokes and walks around, unsure what to do with herself until her husband gets home. Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) calls late into the night to apologize and tell his wife that despite the date night and alone time he had promised, he is stuck working overnight and will not be coming home til the following morning. “I’ll take off work tomorrow and we can spend the whole day together,” he promises. She finishes her drink and her cigarette and hangs up the phone. Drunk and alone, Mabel ends up crying to a stranger at a bar, who ends up coming home with her, trying to make a pass at her, and it is unclear whether or not she slept with him. It is also unclear whether this is typical behavior, or a one time mishap. We suspect it is not the latter.
There is not a lot of sensible plot to follow here, just the moment to moment experiences that reveal Mabel’s increasingly insecure and unstable behavior. Her husband comes home the following day with an army of his colleagues, all expecting to hang out at their small home. She immediately puts on her uncomfortable smiling facade, attempting to please her husband and his friends, re-introducing herself and offering them spaghetti to eat. She seems incredibly socially awkward and manic and the scene is hard to watch.
It only gets worse once they sit around the table and has a few drinks. Complimenting her husbands friends and becoming overly friendly, her husband snaps at her to “sit down” and all the men silently look around, waiting for an opportunity to leave. Suppressing her feelings of anxiety and rejection from Nick, the nature of their unpleasant marriage becomes more clear.
Honestly, I never felt fully invested in the story or the characters, I think, due to how it was set up. It plants you in this moment with no context and tiptoes slowly on. What makes the movie worth sitting through is the masterful acting of the two main leads. It comes across as so natural and effortless that many viewers assumed it was improvised when it first came out, but it was scripted to a tee and just performed in a convincingly naturalistic manner.
Cassavetes is known for a style of filmmaking that almost feels like a documentary due to its unique cinematography and intimacy of the writing. Every shot is meticulously controlled. I was particularly struck by the way he will zoom in and linger on an emotion, even if it risks feeling uncomfortably close.
As Mabel’s behavior becomes more erratic, Nick concedes to the opinions of his friends and family, and decides to have her committed. There is an agonizingly lengthy scene where Mabel screams and protests against the doctor who appears on a home visit and they tell her the news of where she will be taken. While Mabel is gone, we see Nick floundering to raise his children and he appears more manic and unhinged himself, pulling them out of school one day to have an egregiously forced “day of fun” at the beach, and even allows them to drink beer. When Mabel returns home, it is evident that despite her best efforts, she is not much different than before. Aggrieved and unsure of herself, her cries for help seem to fall on deaf ears by everyone around her. Her parents and in-laws are there, and she at one point exclaims, “Dad… will you stand up for me? … Sure … No, I don’t mean that. Sit down, Dad. … Will you please stand up for me?” It is heart wrenching.
The film ends right where it started. Nothing has been resolved and Mabel and Nick’s dysfunction begins to seem like a routine. The verbal abuse, oppression and fanatic episodes are just going to continue, and as they get ready for bed, a strange upbeat song plays, and the credits begin to roll. This film is a mesmerizing character study. Following the wave of The Feminin Mystique, this film strips bare the life of a domesticated woman – ignored, unappreciated, and numb – and her struggle to feel human again.