21 December 2009

Film | Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence

1974 | 155min | Col | Marriage Drama, Psychological Drama | TSPDT #160

Mabel, a wife and mother, is loved by her husband Nick but her madness proves to be a problem in the marriage. The film transpires to a positive role of madness in the family, challenging conventional representations of madness in cinema.

John Cassavettes

John Cassavettes (director)
Gena Rowlands (actress)

Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Matthew Cassel, Matthew Laborteaux, Christina Grisanti

Bleak, cathartic, intimate.  An exhausting portrayal of a woman's impending nervous breakdown.  This film is deemed to be the apotheosis of Cassavettes' improvisation-fuelled method, and it shows.  Rowland's descent into madness, complete with strange noises and unpredictable mannerisms, eventually gives way to the realization that that her behaviour may not be as debilitating as it seems.  Her level-headed husband is not as sane as he initially appears, nor are the family members.  Yet it's very easy to criticize the altercations when you stand outside the ring, and within families we all do and say stupid things sometimes.  But in this film, the mistakes the characters make culminate and transform this steady nuclear family into the most volatile domestic turmoil.  Yet somehow the family is still surprisingly operational.  It's so real and touching - the film gains its emotional force because of its honesty.  There's no moralizing, and is free from the standard-issue plot conventions.  I love the use of close-up shots throughout, for spontaneity and emotional intimacy, in this truly character driven film.

I really loved the music in this film, lots of classical and opera.  The music was central but not intrusive.  From 'Cassavetes on Cassavetes' by Ray Carney:
“Just prior to beginning A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes asked [Bo] Harwood if he would do music for the film. Harwood was a young, unknown, unemployed rock musician who couldn’t read music, but he embraced the challenge and began experimenting with things on his guitar. A few days later, Cassavetes came in and said he had decided he wanted piano music. When Harwood protested that he didn’t have access to a piano, Cassavetes blew off the objection and said that Peter Falk had one in his offices that they could use. When Harwood said that he didn’t know how to play the piano, Cassavetes was still unfazed. That didn’t matter; he could learn. Then a few weeks later, just as Harwood was getting comfortable at noodling around on the keyboard, Cassavetes came in again and said he had just bought a Nagra [sound recorder] and decided that Harwood would also be doing the film’s sound. When Harwood protested that he didn’t know the first thing about sound recording, Cassavetes again said that was fine: ‘It’s just a tape recorder. They’re all the same. It’s easy. You can figure it out.’ Harwood spent the next three weeks carrying the recorder and microphone everywhere he went, experimenting at hom, in restaurants and on the street.”

Here's the theme by Bo Harwood, courtesy of Snore and Guzzle.com, a site I greatly admire:

"John Cassavetes's 1974 masterpiece, and one of the best films of its decade... Cassavetes makes the viewer's frustration work as part of the film's expressiveness; it has an emotional rhythm unlike anything else I've ever seen." -- Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader