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A Woman Under The Influence  

Imagine yourself in a situation where you live with someone you care for, but is perhaps, you think, a little nutty. Now imagine the state of mind you must be in to be willing to accept that person in your life. This is the psychological dilemma composed by director John Cassevettes (Shadows) and performed by Gena Rowlands (Hope Floats) and Peter Falk (Wings of Desire) in the classic A Woman Under The Influence.

This film was made in 1974, and is a remarkable development from the earlier film I`ve reviewed, 1968`s Faces. While I thought that film was a little too in love with its own improvisational style, this film shows a great focus. The improvisation is still there, and it is long-winded, but is complemented with a higher budget, and a more compelling script.

Rowlands and Falk are a married couple living in an average neighbourhood. Falk is a construction worker for the city who, along with his crew, are apparently exploited by their employer. So much so that the crew, after having worked the day shift, are pulled back for the graveyard shift.....and then the morning shift after that. While Falk is slowly going mad from this horrifying position, Rowlands is going mad in another way. A planned night just for the two of them has gone awry due to the aforementioned lengthy construction work. Rowlands is seen moping around the house, having strange physical twitches, playing opera records. And, oddly enough, later goes out to a small bar in town, drunk, and in the process, picks up a guy and takes him home. I wasn`t very clear on what happened after that, but that`s not really the point. The point is what happens the next day, when Rowlands cracks up in front of this stranger. She starts calling him by her husband`s name, telling him to stop playing games, etc. This strange scene tells us that she has unresolved issues with Falk`s character. Perhaps she feels imprisoned in this marriage in some way. These issues remain unresolved, but it gives you insight into what might have made her this way.

Later on, she throws a party for her kids and the other local children. She snares an unsuspecting parent into her delightful party games. Watching her, you will get the feeling she has never "grown up". She is unaware of the ways in which self-consciously adult people interact with each other, and all the innocent things she does during the course of the party (like playing dress-up with the kids) are interpreted as the actions of a truly disturbed, possibly sick woman. Falk feels he has no choice but to commit her, for the sake of the family. And in a lengthy, whirlwind scene, Rowlands tries to fight the forces which seem to be against her. In one key moment, Rowland`s character sticks up her first two fingers, and says to Falk, "We`re together, just like this. They can`t tear us apart." Why should she be taken away from her kids, and her "happy" homelife, just because "I make a jerk out of myself every day." She is obviously saying the two of them share a common destiny, a soulful attachment: the ideals any person would wish to have in a relationship. But this attachment has far more disturbing implications for this particular pairing, and that`s if you pay attention to Peter Falk`s character.

While I think Rowlands` only problem (if it really is a problem) is that she has an almost childlike personality, Falk has a mean, brutal streak which is frightening. At the beginning of the film, he gives what seems to be a determined claim to the boss on the phone that he intends to spend the night with his wife instead of working. At first, his yelling seems reasonable, for we all have the right to have a life outside of the workplace. But it turns out it`s all just yelling, for he never actually decides to skip work at all. And during the numerous confrontational scenes, it isn`t merely protests from a harried husband, but a man with a violent, threatening temper which appears and disappears with similar speed. He actually threatens his entire family with death, and it sure sounds as if he means it. Yet moments later he`ll slip back into a nicer mode....and later on go through the entire cycle over again. Sure, Rowlands may be crazy, but at least I`d not fear for my own safety around her.

I also think Falk`s character is more of a danger to the kids then Rowlands could ever be. At least she tries to look at kids on their level. Falk, on the other hand, yanks them out of school one day to go on a beach trip, and the behaviour displayed here is as if this conceivably fun outing is nothing more than a punishment for everyone involved. The point is that both parents try too hard to fulfill their assigned roles, and their over-effort brings about only pain. Yet no one ever says Falk is crazy, only Rowlands. The theory is that Falk`s behaviour is somewhat acceptable because he`s a macho guy, but an eccentric woman is dangerous, and that theory is not too far off the mark.

This is a must-view, if only for the gusto in Falk`s and Rowland`s performances. Both of these actors are successfully able to portray people at the end of their mental rope, without seeming as if they might just collapse from all that acting effort. The film itself is long-winded at times, especially the spaghetti dinner scene, and also doesn`t have a "satisfactory" conclusion. But, in the case of this film, for me at least, these characteristics don`t pose a problem. The movie straddles that fine line between the randomness of real life and the confines of a story, and creates a classic from it.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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