The central question of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence is similar to the age-old one of Hamlet: Is the protagonist’s behavior influenced by psychosis, by chicanery, or simply by natural personality? Does (s)he need treatment to make him/her more sociable, or does (s)he need esteem and valuing as a person with differences? The title character is Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands, a once-wife of the director), wife of municipal construction worker Nick (Peter Falk) and mother of three. She flirts with other guys to the point where she might give the wrong impression. She drinks and smokes more than she really ought to. She has a series of physical tics and vocal quirks that are too many to list here. Don’t we all? We never learn what or if there is anything wrong, at least on a neurological basis, with Mabel (though I’ve read that bipolar disorder is implied), and this is the correct approach. There is no diagnosing, no pathologizing, no grand solution to everything. We are forced to deal with Mabel as a human, on equal terms with us, without the soapboxes of medical expertise and clinical judgment. I’ll be blunt, though: I did at times connect with Mabel on the level of Asperger’s. One of Woman’s dominant motifs is socialization, or how we adapt and are coerced to adapt to standard rules and rituals of communication that often strike Aspergerians like me as unnatural, with unknown origins that appear beyond human creation and hence human reason. Long set pieces of fifteen to twenty minutes are devoted to people exchanging names, boasting talents, trying to push other people to act regularly as if the traumas affecting their lives had never occurred. The Criterion essay to this film makes a point of discussing performativity, and if you act or pretend to become sociable enough and to put on a performance of normality, you may well become sociable and normal. (Think of the Nathaniel Hawthorne quote staring down on Tony, at Bowdoin, in that famous early episode of The Sopranos.) A Woman exposes the falsehood of that socialization process, making it in fact seem impossible and dishonest, and it does so not least through its expert probing of relations between the generations, and I find that quite refreshing in hindsight. The two lead performances are slightly overrated, it must be said. Falk heaps on a few too many Italian-American affectations, while Rowlands’ work depends on micromanagement to the degree that the tiniest gestures are deliberate; most of her choices excel, but a few really don’t work. The editing is klutzy in some parts—especially during the pivotal scene when Mabel reaches her nadir; the series of false endings in the final act is tiresome. So, not a masterpiece, but worth watching for its novel take on mental health alone.
One day, I’d like to write an extended essay—likely novel-length—about experimental cinema from between 1997 and 2002, a period of time I will here name the tour du siècle—the turn of the century. The tour du siècle era strikes me as the greatest in the history of cinema. That was the age of Amores Perros, Memento, Pi, Requiem for a Dream, City of God, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, 25th Hour, Before Night Falls, Sexy Beast, Training Day, etc. To that list, I am happy to add Open Your Eyes, the sci-fi-horror breakthrough of Spanish auteur Alejandro Amenábar. The first hour, save for an uncanny opening scene, tells an elemental, almost too-mundane love story. The artist César (Eduardo Noriega) is in a contentious relationship with Nuria (Najwa Nimri); when he meets the mime Sofía (a young Penélope Cruz), the date of his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martínez), he is smitten. Nuria’s subsequent impulse is to crash her car into a sound wall with him in shotgun. She is killed, and César is disfigured beyond repair and loses Sofía’s admiration. Isn’t it ludicrous sometimes how we base so much on our and others’ appearances? The term love at first sight in and of itself is wrapped up in the connotations of banal, superficial surfaces; their appeal blinds us to whatever is unappealing about them, sinks us in denial. César is attached to Sofía as a mime, so to speak, of his ideal woman, and Sofía in return only assigns meaning to César based on his handsomeness. (This much becomes clear in the scene where the two of them draw each other and interpret their drawings.) The film plays on the tragic notion that Sofía ought to have very little importance in the scope of César’s life, yet the way the circumstances play out, she is a primal need for him—not least because, as with Orpheus, she is lost, regained and lost again so quickly and so repeatedly, and that is how precious she is. The circumstances I mention, I will not reveal. This is not a film you want spoiled. (Okay, I’ll give you a hint: cryogenics get involved.) Suffice it to say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film transition so smoothly and patiently from the by-the-book romance presented at the beginning, all the way through to the wild, innovative mind-fuck on display in the second half—while also staying firm in César’s perspective, which gets increasingly warped even though the logic of the narrative remains readable and seamless throughout. And most of the tour du siècle films I listed do achieve all that, too. As for the ending, it’s ambiguous, frustrating, and perfect.
Tomorrow: I know I’m behind on my reviews, but at least I’m back on my original schedule and halfway through the month! I still have The Fast Runner and Dogville to recap, and the next film up to watch is Aguirre.