A Woman under the Influence

Director: John Cassavetes
Screenwriters: John Cassavetes

Institute History

  • 1989 Sundance Film Festival


Woman (as Cassavetes always calls it) combines with Faces and Husbands to form what can be described as John Cassavetes’s Marriage Trilogy, an aggregate work that stands with the most searing and unforgettable of our century. But Woman far extends the range of that work. In Faces and Husbands, people got crazy for short bursts, but they didn’t go mad. Instead, with a resigned and even defeated air, they tended to return to the same repressed state that had driven them nuts in the first place. But in Women, Mabel is both desperate and courageous enough not to pull back from madness, but to go all the way over into a state of mind that confronts every assumption of her life with Nick (Peter Falk). Perhaps sit is this underlying sense of Mabel’s intention that makes Gena Rowlands and Cassavetes say they have never considered Mabel insane. She’ just, to use Gena’s word, “wacko.” Meaning that Mabel has her own way of seeing the world, and has a right to insist on the validity of her vision.

Again Cassavetes uses his unique filmcraft to head us off at the pass. We want some distance between us and Mabel; we want to be able to look away, to get out of that house. Instead, like Mabel’s family, we're trapped in her experience with her. Our viewpoint is that of a relative, or one of her kids: there’s no escape from the crisis. That’s what family trouble means, and Cassavetes won’t pretend otherwise with comfortable cuts and scene changes.

Yet even in her worst pain, Mabel possesses a transcendent beauty that can’t help but open our hearts. Again like her family, we love her, which completes Cassavetes’s point: the possibility of love exists even in the most awful of circumstances. In Faces, Husbands, and Minnie and Moskowitz, the love between men ad women is at worst an infatuation, and at best what Cassavetes calls “moments”—brilliant flashes that may be revelatory but can’t last. In Women, love costs, love demands, but its cost and demands are almost welcome as proof that profound love exists. These are people willing, quite literally, to go to hell for each other.

— Tony Safford

Screening Details

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