A Woman Under the Influence Review

This title is currently available only as part of Optimum's The John Cassavetes Collection boxed set.

Though it may seem a little obvious to say so, A Woman Under the Influence gains much of its power through its singular focus. Prior to the film’s production, John Cassavetes’ works as a director, specifically those which had been made independently, would revolve around the conversations and arguments between pairs and groups of people. Here, however, during the initial stages, we have Gena Rowlands and that’s it. As such it’s an incredibly unnerving experience because not only are we seeing her in situations where no-one else would (an extension of the method whereby Cassavetes would pry so close to his subjects that we’d catch them unawares), but also because of the voyeurism inherent in this.

Of course, what makes this all the more difficult – and therefore the film all the more powerful – is the subject matter. Whereas Shadows was essentially a bit of fun and Faces and Husbands set about puncturing the male ego, here we get a woman and her mental illness, as seen, primarily, by the way she is perceived by others. Indeed, it’s her own self-consciousness which makes this all the more heartbreaking – all she wants is to be “a good mother” to her three children and get along with her husband’s friends. Likewise he (played by Peter Falk) doesn’t want much different, though the fact that he believes her to be fine simply because she can perform the household tasks present a different, sourer edge. And of course, such an element can only be enhanced once his violent impulses and the sterner undercurrents beneath his jovial blue collar exterior become all the more apparent.

Yet whilst A Woman Under the Influence sees Cassavetes changing focus slightly, his cinematic approach remains the same. The film retains the handheld photography, grainy film stock and other rough edges, whilst the structuring of the piece similarly adheres to his style. Here, however, we do find a slight tweak as the usual epic scenes in which we are asked to work our own way through their misery and tensions are more greatly controlled. As such each scene gets progressively longer as the film progresses resulting in us getting deeper and deeper into this woman’s existence. Understandably, this is hardly the most comfortable of situations, but when dealing in such themes how could we expect as much?

Indeed, as is the case with all of Cassavetes’ best works, A Woman Under the Influence doesn’t make for an easy experience. The general mistreatment of Rowlands’ character is often shocking, from the guy who takes advantage of her in a bar or Katherine Cassavetes’ truly frightening performance as her mother-in-law. What’s most forceful, however, is the manner in which the gradual accumulation of lengthy scenes means that we easily forget events which occurred much earlier. Rather it is only after the film has finished and we replay it in our minds that the full weight of its drama becomes apparent and the seeming minor victory of its final scene becomes nothing of the sort.

The Disc

As with the other titles in Optimum’s John Cassavetes boxed set, A Woman Under the Influence looks simply stunning on disc. The image is anamorphically enhanced, consistently clean and the colours – a heady mix of blues and reds – come across as especially rich. The grain is also apparent as are some of the rougher edges, but then this is to be expected from a Cassavetes feature and the disc certainly doesn’t take liberties with them. The only problem is some intermittent flicker, though this never proves to be too distracting. As for the soundtrack, we are likewise given a crisp and clean offering. Retaining the film’s original mono (spread over the front two channels), the disc copes just as ably with the dialogue scenes as it does the music, though be warned that voices can go from very quiet to extremely loud in the bat of an eyelid.

As for extras, these come in the form of two interviews. One, from the present day, sees film historian and author of John Cassavetes: Lifeworks, Tom Charity, chat to Elaine Kagan, who served as the director’s secretary for many years, whilst the other speaks to Cassavetes himself in 1975. Of course, the latter (which is audio only) is likely to attract more interest, yet both merit their inclusion on the disc. Michel Ciment, the journalist who interviews Cassavetes, sticks mainly to the film at hand, whilst Kagan (who worked with him prior to A Woman Under the Influence on both Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz) is far more wide ranging. As such the two pieces compliment each other and, when considered alongside the extras on the other discs in the Cassavetes collection, add up to a number of fascinating insights.

As with the main feature, there are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise, on these extras.

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