In A Woman Under the Influence (1974), John Cassavetes offers a devastating look into the suffocating gendered politics of heterosexual family life, exposing how our cruel expectations of each other can lead to our undoing. The film follows a seemingly simple plot: The protagonist, Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands), appears to suffer from a series of mental breakdowns which prompts her family to commit her into a psychiatric institution.
Watching the film prompted me to ask the following questions: Were those really mental breakdowns, or merely a woman misunderstood by a largely patriarchal society quick to condemn women for resisting their expected roles of mother and wife? Of course, Cassavetes offers no definite answers, only multiple scenarios and therefore, many possible interpretations for Mabel’s behaviour. Here lies the film’s strength – its propensity for ambiguity. Even without watching the film, we know that the dominant narrative is that of the hysterical woman and the madwoman in the attic. In a society that is quick to label women as hysterical simply because they refuse to conform to masculine expectations, Cassavetes’ penchant for ambiguity is an act of resistance towards a singular patriarchal narrative that has heavily permeated much of society for decades.
Not only does Cassavetes shows us Mabel’s nervous outbursts, he also shows us her husband’s capacity for aggression and abnormal behaviour. This highlights that maybe society’s brutal reaction to Mabel’s anxieties are unfounded, based entirely on misogynistic reasons. It complicates the reasons for Mabel’s diagnosis when only the woman is punished in this situation, while the man goes scot-free. Mabel cracks under the pressure of adhering to the polite social niceties expected of women, and suffers a breakdown when she is mercilessly crucified for not being a wholly “respectable” wife and mother. On the other hand, her husband, Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk), is free to resort to physical threats and abuse to silence her eccentricities. He embodies a ruthless recklessness which Mabel never had, but was abused for. Yet, in this situation, where the man clearly seems to deviate more than the woman, it is the woman who goes on to be punished. People empathise with Nick; they help out with his kids. No one did the same for Mabel, because a woman being a mother to her kids is something that is a de facto state of affairs in this society – it’s the way it’s supposed to be, and failure is to be met with disgust and apathy. It leads us to wonder if Mabel is actually psychologically unfit, or merely wrongly vilified by a patriarchal society for her failure to conform to her predetermined gendered roles.
In a world where women are faced with a brutal false dichotomy of psychosis or docility, it’s not hard to see why Mabel cracks under such an unfair system. It’s not hard to see why her love for dancing can be construed as deviancy in a system so patriarchally rigid. It’s not hard to see why Mabel’s breakdown was inevitable. Cassavetes doesn’t tell us why Mabel has suffered a breakdown, but it’s easy to put the pieces together when you see how Nick gets away with having multitudes, however unacceptable they are. On the contrary, Mabel is crucified simply because society has chosen to negate the humanity of a woman in favour of a watered-down and controllable version of her.
There is an abundance of ugliness in the inhumane way Mabel is treated by society in the film. However, this allows the rare empathy and kindness towards her to shine whenever they happen. For example, the scenes when Mabel is alone with her children shows us what could happen if none of us have learned and internalised the horrible misogyny which deeply hurts women. In the film, the innocence of children tells us so much of the gendered violence we have grown to accept as part of our daily lives. While her husband only cares whether she appears respectable to society, her children do the exact opposite: they praise her by saying, “You’re smart, you’re pretty, you’re a little nervous, too.”
This sentence tells us that her anxiety over not being able to keep it together isn’t the only part of her that matters. In their eyes, her intelligence precedes everything else she is wrongly vilified for in society. There are other qualities she is valued for beyond how perfect of a wife or mother she is; there are other dimensions to being a person that society refuses to accept and cherish, choosing instead to punish. Towards the end of the film, when her family shuns her for adamantly refusing to be docile and gentle, only her children stay behind. They break away from the grasp of their father who tells them to leave their mother, choosing to literally and figuratively lift Mabel up. They hold tight onto her with a fierce compassion and affection, actions absent for most of the film. Most importantly, they let her know that she is valued for who she is – both the good and the ugly. It’s a depiction of an unconditional love and empathy women are rarely offered in this broken world.
A Woman Under the Influence is masterful work from John Cassavetes, for it tells us so much about the imprisoning lives women have led, and continue to lead. It also shows us what could be if we only choose to recognise the humanity in women, instead of violently forcing them to live up to horribly misogynistic standards.
A Woman Under the Influence is streaming on FilmStruck and has been released on Criterion Blu-Ray & DVD.