Agnès Varda, Grand Dame of the film world, descended upon AFI Fest 2013 as Guest Artistic Director. In this role, she chose several canonical films to be screened with her own personal introductions. For Sunday morning she picked John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974), a kinetic and disturbing film that Varda, appearing in person (to my infinite delight), ranked as one of her all-time favorites.
As Varda herself pointed out, the film is anchored by the performance of Gena Rowlands as Mabel, the somewhat unstable wife of Nick (Peter Falk) and mother to their three young children. From the start, her extreme nervousness and dreamy wanderings through her Los Angeles home make it clear that she is not entirely together. Her performance crafts a vocabulary of madness that forms the underlying structure of the film. The episodic plot slowly advances—Nick breaks a date with Mabel to work an extra shift, Mabel brings a man home in revenge—but these events are secondary to one’s fascination with Mabel’s complex physical presentation, as if the form of her gestures can serve as a divining rod for her mental state.
Peter Falk’s performance is necessarily secondary to Rowlands’s; however, it is often equally devastating. The character is your average American shmo’, content doing hard physical labor for the City during the day and expecting to come home to a perfect little family at night. Mabel complicates this fantasy, and while his love for her is palpable, he neither understands nor necessarily sympathizes with her plight. One finds oneself reminded of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, if only the husband was viciously angry and the wife was apologetic for her instability. His decision to “fix her” ultimately has little to do with helping her to a more stable condition and a great deal to do with his desire for a reliable housewife.
Cassavetes’ direction is the third star of the film, allowing scenes to compound and congeal in strange and unexpected ways. As we all know from our own family fights, there is often no telling what direction the argument is going to take, and Cassavetes is happy to keep us in suspense as to whether the characters will explode into anger or manage to craft an uneasy resolution. The former development is more frequent, making this one of the most “hard to watch” films I have seen in a long time.
“A Woman Under the Influence” concludes with very little resolution, and leaves the audience wondering what really makes a person “crazy.” By this film’s measure, there is no clear point at which someone’s eccentricities are verifiably unacceptable, and those who do the damning are often damnable themselves. As Agnès Varda lovingly stated, “Mabel is fragil, she is weak. But after the film is over, you just want to take her in your arms and comfort her.”