Although it’ll be screening at MOMA right before Halloween, the holiday that most comes to mind when watching A Woman Under the Influence would have to be Mother’s Day. Thirty-five years after its debut, writer-director John Cassavetes’s remarkable drama about insanity and domesticity (redundant?) can be viewed through dozens of different prisms, but just as actress Gena Rowlands dominates the film’s center, so, too, do the challenges of motherhood inform every frame of its 155 minutes.
Often crudely synopsized as “that movie about the crazy wife,” the recently restored A Woman Under the Influence (which kicks off the museum’s seventh annual international film-preservation festival) came about after Rowlands asked her husband, Cassavetes, to write her a role that would illustrate women’s struggles in the modern age. From that slim notion, he concocted an epic relationship drama about Mabel (Rowlands), wife and mother of three young children, and her blue-collar husband, Nick (Peter Falk). Once we’re introduced to this couple, we know them—he’s a backslapping guy’s guy, while she’s . . . well, something is definitely off about Mabel. A little too loud at odd moments, a little too animated and temperamental, Mabel is a hoot, until she’s not; her outsize personality isn’t an affectation, but instead a sign of something more troubling. Nick’s co-workers gingerly dance around the subject, but everyone knows: Mabel’s a good soul, but she’s not well.
Inspired by Rowlands’s intense, unapologetic performance, Cassavetes isn’t concerned with explaining Mabel’s “condition” or creating an overt societal critique around it. Through extended, seemingly mundane sequences, this quietly feminist film simply presents the life of a working-class Los Angeles family with a nonchalance that amplifies Mabel’s instability, but also normalizes her strains until they resemble the daily emotional fissures of any good mom. In retrospect, A Woman Under the Influence seems to anticipate the following year’s Jeanne Dielman, which would express many of the same sentiments in even more shocking terms, but its shadow stretches even further. Compare Cassavetes’s film to any number of more recent agony-of-suburbia dramas focusing on put-upon mothers—Julianne Moore’s harrowing performance as the environmentally sensitive Carol in Safe, the suffering matriarchs of Little Children and Revolutionary Road—and you’ll realize how these later films echo Influence‘s underlying conflict: the tension between mother as loving rock of the family and mother as human being, with inner turmoil.
Falk and the rest of the cast are exceptional—even the smallest roles feel spot-on—but Rowlands (who will be on hand for the opening-night screening) is the film. Mabel’s mood swings and occasionally childlike behavior can exasperate, but her beautiful rapport with her kids complicates our reaction. Can we forgive Mabel after she brings a stranger home from a bar the night Nick has to work late? Should Nick commit her? And are their children really better off after she’s sent away? It would have been easy for Cassavetes to make Mabel a helpless victim of her environment, but he never claims that her imbalance is due to motherhood, matrimony, male oppression, or anything else. Instead, the film celebrates and honors what she and so many other mothers have to overcome without much support or understanding from the outside world. Yes, she’s “the crazy wife,” but as A Woman Under the Influence suggests, she’s still a better parent than her husband.