Movie #97: A Woman Under the Influence
Manly Footwear: We went to see Amanda Palmer perform in Toronto the weekend that we watched this film, and I wondered if some of the points she made—about the absence of female songwriting icons in the 1980s, for example—would be part of the way I viewed A Woman Under the Influence now, since I have already seen it 6 or 7 times during last 15 years. Would I find it misogynistic, given the attention #metoo has focused on the male directorial gaze? Or exploitative of the mentally ill? Or simply self-indulgent, given Palmer’s ability to reinvent self-indulgent art as profound cabaret? Thankfully, Palmer’s performance was transcendent, and I was glad to have had access to her vision because she reminded me that equity is always the goal, that the more various and inclusive the voices making up the chorus of our vision, the better chance we have to be astonished, and that, after 7 or 8 viewings, A Woman Under The Influence still astonishes me.
I love the idea that Cassavetes did not consider Gena Rowlands’ character “crazy,” for example. Accepting that Mabel and Nickie were just two people smothered by their gender roles is interesting and difficult to do, because they are both clearly fucking nuts, in a way that is both historically conditioned and contemporary. Mabel would never think to take the kids out of school and get them drunk, but Nick didn’t actually think about it, either, his connection to the children was one of labor, that children were to be wrangled the way a busted water main might be repaired. Of course, like a water main, they will never get truly fixed, and that question—shit, what happens to those kids?—looms over the film from the bottom (literally, in terms of camera angles) up.
And surely they turned out fine, the kids, just like we all turned out: fine. Everything in this movie verges on self-parody without lurching over, which is pretty fucking amazing give that the pacing is a drunken lurch (wow, editing and soundtrack and camera angles, hell yeah indie cinema!). If the measure of cinematic greatness is that the viewer cannot stop thinking about the film once they leave the theater, well, this one should be a lot closer to the top of the list.
This film is always so painful to watch and this time was no different.
The tale of a housewife, her husband and mental illness, it starts with Nick up to his chest in water working on a water main break with his crew. As the day progresses, he gets squirrelier and more agitated as it looks like the break is going to take longer to fix than the regular work day. The crew stops at a bar for liquid fortification and Nick makes a call to the home office – he demands to be clocked out and allowed to go home because he has a date with his wife. The next scene of the crew truck lurching and bucking to the site of the water main break shows how the home office reacted to demands.
The cut scenes show Mabel at home frantically wrangling her children and their stuff into their grandmother’s convertible. The conversations are fairly typical for families and the frenzy around packing up and going somewhere. The first real hint that something is a bit off is Mabel’s remorse as soon as the car is on the road that she shouldn’t have let the kids go as she’s trying to put on the shoe she fell out of in the lawn.
Nick doesn’t call Mabel to tell her about the water break until well after dark when his crew pushes him to do so. By that time, Mabel’s well into the beer they were to have shared on their date and is visibly despondent.
And so the scenes continue and the spiral into questionable behavior and very bad decisions for both Nick and Mabel moves them further down the path to madness.
While most of the focus is on Mabel and her behavior, Nick is walking the same path and in many cases, shoving Mabel in front of him to cushion and camouflage his descent.
With the help of his shrew of a mother and an oily doctor, Nick has Mabel committed. This leaves him with 3 children he barely knows and only seemed to tolerate before Mabel’s incarceration. To remedy that, he gets a coworker to drive the city truck to their school, takes them out of class and to the beach for the day. Afterwards, he sits in the bed of the truck with them and shares his beers with them on the ride home.
A heartbreaking scene later in the film, after Mabel’s release, where she begs her father to stand up for her and her mother has to tell her husband what his daughter is asking of him shows how people failed to listen and notice details that could have helped Mabel, and Nick and themselves.
Rough. Great film but be prepared.
Vinnie From Queens: Here’s a scene I will never get out of my head. Nick hugging Mabel as hard as he can, and repeating ‘Come back to me.’ Like if he hugs her hard enough she will stop being crazy. It is ridiculous and totally understandable. He’s lost too. His efforts are like that of a grasping child. ‘There’s nothing you can do wrong.’ he tells her, ‘Just be yourself.’
In several scenes, Nick’s mother looks on, hawklike and ready to pounce. She is a disagreeable character making undeniable statements. She’s the bad guy. But she’s also right about Mabel, and the entirely unintentional danger she poses to the children. Nick’s mother personifies the external pressure of an outside world that doesn’t think this is harmless and doesn’t trust Nick and Mabel to work this out on their own.
Every scene has this enormous potential to go to shit. Like the lovely breakfast scene with all of Nick’s coworkers. They are taking turns singing songs, not well of course. Until one of them, a younger African American, sings. And he has an opera-quality voice. It’s a disorienting, beautiful scene. And then it goes terribly wrong.
Watching that scene and the others that follow, the actors seem surprised. Like they can’t believe they are participating in a scene so gut-wrenching. Obviously, these are great actors, but oh my god, they don’t look like they are in control, at all.
It feels unusual, the way Mabel’s decline is expressed. There’s much hugging, and physical struggle, and chasing. The children are confused about who is the source of harm, so they scream in terror at the wrong things. But, I guess, terror is terror.