Monday, June 15, 2009

Cassavetes and Rowlands and “A Woman Under the Influence”

By Lars Trodson

Mabel Longhetti is crazy by the time we meet her. Her husband is off on a job, and she’s alone at home. When she later walks into a low-rent tavern by herself and flicks the back of some guy’s head as a way to introduce herself, Mabel has us uneasy.

She takes the man home -- to her home -- the one she shares with her husband and children. As they fumble about the next morning -- a mini but expert examination of how people interact when the fake intimacy of sex has faded away -- Mabel yells out the name “Nick!”, which is her husband’s name.

The man, the one-night stand, asks who Nick is, and rightly says he’s not going to play the fool in a game where she’s trying to get back at this “Nick.” Mabel pantomimes throwing a few punches at the guy.

The sequence ends when Nick and his hard-hat buddies come back to the house after doing two long shifts at a local construction site, and the one-night stand is long gone.

So begins John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” -- a movie I had been wanting to see since the day I saw a clip of Gena Rowlands in the role of Mabel during the 1975 Academy Awards. Rowlands was nominated for Best Actress and Cassavetes was nominated as Best Director; neither won.

I thought of the film again after watching and being disappointed by “Revolutionary Road” -- which we wrote about earlier here. I’m a huge Cassavetes/Rowlands fan, and the time seemed right to see the film. “Revolutionary Road” was lacquered and tidy, and you knew that the Cassavetes’ approach was going to be the exact opposite. So I was looking at it as a kind of corrective.

As is usually the case with Cassavetes, the movie is really a series of long set pieces. The opening scene of adultery leads to an equally long scene of the boys -- which includes Peter Falk as Nick -- eating a homecooked meal after a long cold night on the job. It is one of the most beautiful dinner scenes I’ve ever seen, with the banter interspersed with shots of Gena Rowlands’ unbelievably beautiful face -- a face made more beautiful by her expressive eyes and mouth. But she’s heartbreaking here, because she’s trying to connect with the men in a normal way. This is something that is just beyond her reach. “What’s your name?” she keeps asking each of the men.

The scene ends when one of the men sings an aria, and Mabel hovers uncomfortably close to the man’s face. When he stops singing, Mabel asks “Who wants to dance?” Nick mutters his displeasure, until he finally explodes: “Sit your ass down!”

Not only is the dinner ruined, the illusion of any kind of domestic tranquility is shattered.

Cassavetes takes an interesting and innovative approach to what happened to this woman. As the film progresses, the persona of Nick gradually emerges. He’s a tyrant and a bully - he’s mentally and physically abusive. We never see Mabel when she’s sane, but we do get to learn what made her break.

At first -- and this is probably because I’ve always like Falk as an actor -- I was annoyed by this performance. I wondered why he and Cassavetes were making Nick so abrasive. Why was he shouting? But the scene when he hits Mabel comes as an absolute shock -- and then I saw what was really happening. You first believe that Nick's character is simply frustrated and reacting to his wife's unsteady behavior, but you realize that it is Mabel who is the one doing the reacting to an unstable personality.

This is a menacing, uncomfortable movie. The scene where Nick and a co-worker take the children to the beach -- on what looks like a chilly day -- is truly harrowing. At one point Nick pushes his daughter down into the sand, bellowing that they were going to have fun -- and you just want to shout, “Stop, stop it!” You just want to get away from this guy -- and you no longer wonder why Mabel would want to get away from him, too. At another point Nick comes home to a little party Mabel is throwing for her kids and some of their friends, but the party has quickly fallen apart as Mabel acts increasingly distressed. Nick comes home, and confronts the neighbor upstairs in their bedroom. All the neighbor is trying to do is get his kids the hell out of the house, but Nick doesn't know what is happening and his violent nature comes through again.

After Mabel is institutionalized, the film cuts away to “six months later” -- which is the single nod to conventional movie storytelling that Cassavetes allows. The last third of the movie is devoted to Mabel’s homecoming. Nick botches even that - he’s invited too many people over. Almost everybody is kicked out, with only each of their parents left and a few other friends. When Mabel finally arrives she is clearly unwell.

Mabel announces that she wants even the few people reamining to leave because she wants to go to bed with Nick. Everyone, including the kids, begin to get uncomfortable all over again. As she begins to drift away once more, Nick continues to shout and implores Mabel to hold on. Cassavetes cuts to the faces of the children sitting at the table, and they looked terrorized. They all finally leave in the rain.

The movie ends quietly, on a bizarre note. Nick and Mabel simply start to get undressed, and Cassavetes uses a jaunty, bouncy kazoo over the end credits. It was the one move I didn’t get and didn’t like.

But the movie -- and certainly Gena Rowlands -- were flawless until that last moment. A beautiful, savage, heartbreaking film. I can't say that I'm going to watch "A Woman Under the Influence" again, but I was glad that Cassavetes made it, and made it his way. I needed to be reminded that movies can sometimes be deeply, deeply felt works of art.