Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 15 March 2012
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Watching A Woman Under the Influence is the cinematic equivalent of listening to your parents fight. It’s anguishing and exasperating, heartbreakingly preventable yet somehow inevitable. Most painfully, the film recreates the helplessly divided loyalty of a child trapped in a warring family. Between two so beloved yet catastrophically flawed people, whom are we supposed to root for?
Before we ever see her, we hear about Mabel, the woman in question, from her husband and mother. They are protective, Nick recounting his promise to do right by her, her mother calling her “terribly nervous.” All Mabel wants is to spend one quiet, intimate night with her husband. Over the course of the film, her life conspires against her so consistently that it takes two breakdowns and six months in a mental hospital before she gets this simple wish. It’s hard not to feel for her from the very start, especially when she spends a long, sad evening drinking alone after Nick bumps her for a work emergency.
But Mabel’s fragilities and eccentricities are not those of your average overstressed housewife. When she’s upset, she mutters to herself, making theatrical and often violent expressions and gestures. When she’s high-spirited, she sings and dances in the faces of strangers until they become uncomfortable. When she’s around her children, she is alternately shrill and needy, pathetically begging them to love her and tell her she’s okay. It’s difficult not to react the same way as the passers-by she accosts; with fear, disgust, and embarrassment. She is visibly mentally ill.
But it’s also obvious that Mabel’s situation is legitimately maddening. Nick stands her up, promises to make it up to her by spending the next day together, and instead shows up with fifteen of his closest work buddies for her to feed. When she starts to get loopy trying to entertain them, Nick screams her down. Just as Mabel and Nick are settling in for a peaceful afternoon, her mother shows up with the kids, and can’t seem to take the demand, much less the hint, to leave. By the time a neighbor brings over a few extra children for a play date, it’s no wonder Mabel is so spooked that scene devolves into chaos. Maybe a more sane woman would have locked herself into the bathroom to cry instead of stripping the kids out of their clothes and leading them in a death scene from “Swan Lake,” but it’s easy to see why she lost it. When Nick comes home to the insanity and responds with violence, you have to take Mom’s side.
But you can’t blame Dad for everything. Whether with his buddies or his family, Nick constantly professes his affection for Mabel. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Nick knows about Mabel’s infidelity, yet we never hear him protest; we get the impression that he tolerates it as one of his wife’s helpless eccentricities. What he wants, over and over, is for his family to be content, to have a good time, and it’s clearly sad ignorance rather than malice when he tries to bully them into it. And when his overbearing mother shows up, played unforgettably by Cassavetes’ own mother (shudder), it’s obvious where he got both his tendency to shout at anything unpleasant and his recurring entanglement with unstable women.
Mabel isn’t the only unstable one, either. Once Mabel is hospitalized, Nick’s life doesn’t get any less harried. He impulsively pulls the kids out of school so they can “have a good time” on the coldest, most cheerless beach in California. He startles their principal and alienates his work friends with his helpless temper. When his daughter runs away from him, he drags her back on their “fun” walk. (Poor little Maria also gets shoved into the sand on her way to the shore, dribbled with dad’s beer, and takes a full beverage right in the face during Mabel’s coming-home party. Even though most of these happen in the background and look like the inevitable accidents that come with low-budget filmmaking, I couldn’t help but think of her as the Meg Griffin of the family.) It’s telling that Nick’s first action on screen is shouting “Fagettaboutit!” at his demanding boss, a gesture that seems noble at the time, but in hindsight is only the first of many impotent protests against the events of his life.
Nick and Mabel are in an awful feedback loop, but at least they genuinely seem to love each other. In rare quiet moments, they are happy to be together, and as often as not the source of their misery is their inability to spend productive time together. By contrast, the other characters that intrude upon the family only serve the cause of chaos. Mabel’s parents remain pleasantly oblivious to their daughter’s symptoms and her pleas for support. Nick’s mother is a hysterical harpy. The doctor who commits Mabel only admonishes the battling family, adding to the noise. Even the one-night-stand Mabel brings home takes it personally and hovers outside her shower, yelling wounded nonsense. Any precious moment of quiet is quickly broken by another swell of screaming arguments, until finding peace in their house is like finding a still point in the sea; another wave is always there.
This toxic environment is most damaging in the second act, when Mabel finally returns from her stay in the mental hospital. The mental hospital is entirely offscreen, and the woman who returns is shellshocked and hollow. We know what’s going to happen: the intensity of the personalities around her will overwhelm her. Nick invites everyone he knows to a giant surprise party, and only after repeated questioning does he reconsider. He sends almost, but not everyone, home, letting the parents, the doctor, and a few stray friends stay for a dinner. Even when Mabel hesitantly asks them to leave her alone with her family, the group insists that they want to “stay for a party!” It’s only when Mabel spins into delusion that they finally leave her be, by which point Nick’s embarrassed rage has taken over, wanting so badly for Mabel to be happy that when she is not, he resorts to threats.
The coming-home party was one of the few moments when I thought the filmmaker’s hands showed. I couldn’t quite buy everyone’s refusal to leave when Mabel asked; several relatives had previously wondered aloud if they should go. The moment seemed scripted to push buttons. I also questioned whether a character as concerned with the appearance of happiness as Nick would turn abusive in front of a stranger, and then brush it off with a calloused “See what you made me do?” Perhaps domestic violence has become more unforgivable in the years since the film’s release; or maybe I can’t buy Columbo smacking a woman around.
But for most of the film, Cassavetes’ naturalistic technique, his restless camera and haphazard blocking, ensnares us in the house, in its relentless waves of frustration. In other hands, this homemade style may have come across as arty, but Cassavetes’ powerful sense of the look and sound of working-class lives makes the technique an analogue to the family’s own unsophisticated communication. The low-budget, claustrophobic, on-location shooting denies us either escape or easy answers. It is not a pleasant experience; it’s not intended to be.
Yet his technique also feels relaxed and casual in the rare contented pauses (Nick’s often convivial workplace; Mabel’s few moments of relaxation with opera and cigarettes). This is a lived-in movie, full of the filmmaker’s actual family and friends and, one presumes, experiences. Nick and Mabel are damaged human beings, and they love each other; both of these facts are plainly evident, and each fact makes the other more painful. Who can we root for? In the quiet note at the end of the film, a moment of domestic peace despite the battles that came before and will surely come again, we root for them both.