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.