Thursday 2 February 2017

1,001 Films: "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974)

By 1974, the aims of the Cassavetes project had become clear: to translate dim or distant countercultural currents - the critical instincts of European arthouse, the first stirrings of progressive feminist and civil-rights movements, the latest developments in Method acting - into rock 'em-sock 'em psychodramas aimed at those upscale East Coast audiences ready and willing to put themselves through the wringer of an evening. Sometimes, the experimentation would pay off: Husbands was a pointed black comedy about precisely the kind of pathetic satyrs the feminists were warning the world about, while the later The Killing of a Chinese Bookie found a new and rewarding approach to genre. Sometimes, though, whether intentionally or otherwise, it came to try the patience.  

A Woman Under the Influence invites us to spend well over two hours in the company of an almost entirely unsympathetic blue-collar couple as their marriage is tested: muddle-headed sewage worker Peter Falk and his batty wife Gena Rowlands, the latter introduced using the occasion of hubby's latest night shift to get trashed in a bar and wake up next to a stranger. The film was to pre-empt Jeanne Dielman..., that totemic feminist text, in its depiction of feminine energies being gradually frittered away: the thesis, rather more stale today than it might have seemed at the time, is that this woman's being driven out of her mind by the stifling milieu she inhabits, and it gets ploddingly set out in "envelope-pushing" (read: long and rambling) improvised sequences in which capital-P performance - and Rowlands' gurning and clawing at the air is decidedly Upper Case - comes to be privileged over story or character logic, narrative momentum or anything even remotely visual.

The goal, as ever with Cassavetes, was authenticity, yet the surprise is how much of the morass of material assembled here actually rings false. The wife's affinity with opera and ballet looks like something imposed upon the character by an audience-savvy filmmaker keen to dress up a working-class tragedy for his core demographic of well-to-do Manhattanites; the scene in which Rowlands harasses passers-by on the street while waiting for her kids' school bus to arrive frames the kind of crack-up that always looks good on camera, yet its immediacy is offered up as compensation for the fact we're just circling a plughole. Evidently, Cassavetes' admirers love it, perhaps because it's the film most keen to impress upon the viewer this director's painstakingly perverse methods and motives. Yet even in such outré setpieces as Rowlands' twenty-minute, doctor-observed domestic flipout, that's all you're left watching: the workings of actors on a film set, the controlled chaos of a dress rehearsal - carefully packed away under the closing credits - rather than the uncontrollable mess of reality. You can get more art by keeping the cameras rolling, yes, but sometimes it's truer to call cut.

A Woman Under the Influence is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through the BFI.

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