Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Fred Draper, Lady Rowlands
Producer: Sam Shaw
Running Time: 147 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
A kind of godfather of American independent cinema, John Cassavetes helped Stateside filmmakers break away from Hollywood and the big studios. Although he acted in a few big budget productions himself, winning acclaim for his role in The Dirty Dozen, these were only ever paychecks to bankroll his next directorial passion project. His films pioneered a raw, grittily realistic style that used elements of improvisation (although surprisingly his films are generally tightly scripted) to let his actors portray often broken and unlikeable characters. Being frequently quite long and dialogue-driven with little humour or excitement, Cassavetes’ films are hard to warm to, but his skill and importance to American filmmakers still today is undeniable.
The BFI are currently re-releasing a number of Cassavetes-directed titles on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD as part of their John Cassavetes Collection. The latest film to receive the high-definition treatment is probably his most well known and successful, A Woman Under the Influence. I took a look at the new disc, marking my second viewing of the film.
A Woman Under the Influence portrays the mental breakdown of Mabel (Gena Rowlands) and the resulting breakdown of her marriage with Nick (Peter Falk). Realising she is overly ‘nervous’ and that others view her as ‘peculiar’, Mabel tries her best to keep everyone happy and remain a good mother to her three children, but Nick’s temper and his mother’s distrust and hatred of her make it difficult for Mabel to stay mentally balanced. Nick loves his wife, but he is frustrated and frightened by her condition and doesn’t know how to deal with her ‘episodes’, so frequently blasts into fits of rage or tries to mask problems by inviting people around for parties, which only make Mabel more anxious. She eventually gets committed and Nick has to look after the children until her return. When Mabel does come back she seems to be a changed woman, but Nick’s poor handling of the situation brings everything back to the surface.
A Woman Under the Influence, like much of Cassavetes’ work, is a difficult experience. Consisting pretty much solely of awkward social situations and intense one-on-one (or several-on-one) confrontations, the film at times feels like an epic version of The Office (the UK version) or Curb Your Enthusiasm, but without the laughs. Cassavetes lets these uncomfortable scenarios play out as long as possible, shooting in his typical raw, handheld and up-close-and-personal style, making for an often gruelling experience. At two and a half hours, the film is very long too, but as heavy going as things get, the effect is so powerful and moving that you can’t tear your eyes away from the screen.
Key to the effectiveness of the film, as is to be expected from the director, are the actors. Rowlands gets a lot of praise for her central performance of a woman struggling to control her fractured mental state and it is much deserved. I do find her delivery rather over the top, but she is so fearless and soul-baring that it remains an immensely powerful portrayal. She is always fascinating to watch, being at once loveable and child-like whilst allowing signs of her unhinged nature to rise to the surface.
Equally as effective though is Falk as Nick. In some ways his character is even more layered due to his mixture of anger and possible malice making way for his deep-set love for his wife and longing for her to stay as she was when everything was settled. Falk maintains a believable and effective balance between showing heartfelt love and often violent frustration. Anyone who only knows the actor as Columbo needs to see this film to see what a truly great performer he was.
A raw, intense and draining experience, A Woman Under the Influence isn’t an easy going or fun classic you’ll want to revisit again and again, but it certainly is a classic and deserves to be seen. Full of gut-wrenchingly moving scenes, the film is a powerhouse of bold, unrestrained performances and unfiltered drama.
A Woman Under the Influence is out on 17th September in a dual format Blu-Ray & DVD set, released by the BFI. The film is part of their ongoing John Cassavetes Collection, which so far already includes Shadows and Faces. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night will be released in Spring 2013.
The picture quality on the Blu-Ray is excellent with the film looking like a decent cinematic print, retaining its natural grain and strong colours. There is a little flicker from time to time, but with Cassavetes’ style being so rough and ready it could be unavoidable. The audio is strong too although the high quality transfer emphasises some of the raw recording methods when the clarity and background noise from different angles don’t always match up. Again, this is clearly to do with the source material though. I had a quick scan of the DVD version and it looks decent too – not dissimilar to the Optimum release of the film a few years ago.
There are a handful of extra features to go with the film. These are slightly different from those included in the previous Optimum DVD release – you get the interview with Elaine Kagan again, but instead of the audio interview with Cassavetes you now get Falk on Cassavetes: husbands and wives, which is a frank interview with Peter Falk on his work with Cassavetes. It’s a nice little piece with plenty of behind the scenes stills added to proceedings. You also get two trailers of the film. On top of this you get the customary booklet as with all BFI releases and it is as in depth and informative as expected.