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Film / A Woman Under the Influence

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"Mabel is not crazy, she's unusual. She's not crazy, so don't say she's crazy."
Nick Longhetti

A 1974 psychological drama, written and directed by John Cassavetes, and starring Gena Rowlands. Cassavetes wrote the film as Rowlands, his wife, wanted a role to illustrate difficulties faced by contemporary women, and made it into a film because it would be too intense to perform eight nights a week as a play.

Mabel and Nick Longhetti (Rowlands and Peter Falk) are a lower-middle class family in Los Angeles, with Nick working for a construction company and Mabel the mother of three children. Nick is shouty and mean, and Mabel is cracking under the strain of an unhappy marriage and home. Eventually she has a full-on breakdown that results in her being taken away to an asylum for six months. She's sent home, but things really haven't gotten any better.

Tropes found in this film include:

  • Awful Wedded Life: A realistic and sad example. The pressures of motherhood and home-making have driven Mabel into insanity. Her husband is incapable of doing anything other than shouting and is unable to give her the emotional comfort she desperately needs. Mabel for her part is bringing random men home from bars for sex. The result is a deeply dysfunctional household.
  • Broken Bird: Mabel is a wreck. When a weepy Mabel asks her father to "stand up" for her, her clueless dad literally stands up.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Everything we need to know about Mabel is right there in her first scene. She hops across the lawn on one foot to load her kids into grandma’s car, nervously conducts the car backing out of the driveway with manic repetition of words, instantly scolds herself for letting them go, stumbles in the yard and adjusts her flip flop, runs inside and points to various things in her living room, like a true obsessive-compulsive, goes to grab a dress box off a shelf but swats it halfway across the room, holds a radio playing opera music up to her ear, goes out for a smoke and comes back in, and finally makes a bizarre gesture with both of her hands as if mocking the living room floor. Yeah, Cloudcuckoolander would be an understatement here.
  • Hearing Voices: Apparently this starts happening with Mabel as her condition deteriorates. She is shown talking to people that aren't in the room.
  • Housewife: Domestic pressures have driven Mabel insane. She clearly loves her children and has intimacy with Nick when he isn't screaming, but by the time she starts undressing the neighbor's children when they are over for a visit, something is very clearly wrong.
  • I'll Kill You!: “I’ll kill ya,” screams Nick, “and I’ll kill these sons-o’-bitchin’ kids.” Nick is not the most supportive husband when Mabel comes home from the asylum.
  • Jerkass: Nick is mean, aggressive, and permanently shouty. His violent temper is obviously a major factor in his wife's mental deterioration. Mabel is composed, if jittery, on her return from the asylum, but Nick's yelling provokes a relapse. One of Mabel's friends, who has arrived for her welcome home party, says "I think you're a shit" to Nick for arranging a big party when Mabel needs rest.
  • My Beloved Smother: Part of Mabel's problem is the people she lives with. Nick's mother, who lives in their cramped home, obviously despises her. Screaming "This woman is crazy!" does not help the state of affairs in the home.
  • No Ending: Nothing is actually resolved at the end of the movie. After Nick's screaming and rage have provoked a full relapse from Mabel that includes slicing up her hand and climbing on top of the couch, the children calm her down. Nick, who calms down himself for pretty much the first time in the movie, rinses and bandages Mabel's hand. They flip out their couch-bed and prepare to go to sleep. Roll credits.
  • No Indoor Voice: Nick carries around a lot of rage inside and expresses it by screaming. Even something as inconsequential as Mabel's father not wanting spaghetti for dinner leads to a shouting match, when Mabel needs calm and quiet above all else.
  • Non-Indicative Title: Usually when one is described as being "under the influence" it is a reference to being intoxicated by alcohol or drugs. Mabel goes drinking at a bar one night and has a drunken hook-up, but otherwise substance abuse isn't one of her problems.
  • Really Gets Around: Mabel's insanity leads among other things to extreme promiscuity. She brings a stranger home from the bar and has sex with him; the man narrowly misses a confrontation with Nick the next morning. What started out as a pleasant dinner with Nick's co-workers goes to hell when Mabel starts caressing a muscular dinner guest, provoking yet another shouting match.
  • Sanity Slippage: Gena Rowlands delivers one of the more memorable film instances of this trope. Mabel goes from somewhat jittery to something that resembles schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
  • Self-Harm: Nick stops her from going beyond cutting her hand in the bathroom. After she just continues on putting the kids to bed with a bloody hand.
  • The Shrink: There to evaluate whether Mabel is off-balance, his presence and the threat he represents only throws her further off.
  • Slice of Life: A fairly simple story of a dysfunctional family featuring an emotionally (and occasionally physically) abusive father and a mother descending into madness.
  • Time Skip: Six months pass between Mabel being committed for her erratic behavior and her return from the asylum.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Nick's shouting provokes breakdowns from Mabel, which on two different occasions leads him to hit her. Rather disturbingly, the second time this works, as Mabel calms down when a slap from Nick knocks her off the couch.