Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Great Movies: "A Woman Under the Influence"

A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974

This movie is from the early 1970s, a time when it was briefly popular to make films about working class people. Since Cassavetes’ style simulates an unadorned eavesdropping on the lives of its characters (its not unlike Robert Altman’s style, in that way), there is a sense for those of us of a certain age of being plunged into the culture of childhood, complete with the mediocre food, garish d├ęcor, boxy vehicles, and children who were allowed to engage in unstructured activity. The past, as it always has been, is a foreign country.

A Woman Under the Influence is about a dysfunctional family, and not in the Wes Anderson/Dannie Darko/Garden State “dysfunction is wryly amusing!” sense either. The woman at the center of the film is profoundly disturbed, desperately scrambling for a grip on normalcy that will keep her from being institutionalized. Her husband is smart, confident, and charismatic, and so it takes longer to realize that he, too, is treading the line between sanity and its absence.

There is an uncompromising realism to this movie, so as in real life the mental illness of the characters (and their mothers, who are almost as messed up as they are) is never funny, always grim. It is given none of the ironic hipster chic of the Anderson school, nor the spooky glamour of madness that we saw in Taxi Driver. Woman Under the Influence is therefore a much more honest and authentic film – and consequently, of course, a less entertaining one.

Plot: A mentally ill couple tries to live a semblance of a normal life. They do pretty well, considering the cards they’ve been dealt. It helps that they are genuinely fond of each other.

Visuals: Stark, unlovely, and highly evocative of a time and a way of life.

Dialog: A well-written script, acted with skill and sensitivity. Good performances in the supporting roles help create an overall impression of verisimilitude. This movie is not filmed in anything like a documentary style, but it still has a documentary feel to it.

Prognosis: Recommended for people interested in the history of independent film, mental health issues, cinematic realism, and what life in the early 1970s felt like.

1 comment:

Elaine said...

Hmmm..another "must miss" for me. I checked the date, and I was in the US in 1974, but no memory of this movie. (SOME of us were gainfully employed, post-college adults in the early 70's. It was not a terrific decade, to be sure...Nixon, after all.)