Earlier this year, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel was awarded with the American Society of Cinematographers' Lifetime Achievement Award. While he received widespread acclaim for 'The Black Stallion' and 'Being There' early on in his filmography, it was the work he did with independent cinema legend John Cassavetes that launched his career. Deschanel and the director teamed up for 'A Woman Under the Influence' -- the harrowing story of a working-class family, starring Peter Falk and Cassevetes' wife and muse, Gena Rowlands.
"I'll be whatever you want me to be," Mabel Longhetti tells her husband, Nick. He's a blue-collar worker who shouts before talking and slaps before caressing. Mabel's prone to some odd behavior -- it's like another part of her that tends to crawl out of hiding when Nick isn't around. She searches for affection at a bar with strange men, and is totally unprepared for what happens after they share a drink and a kiss. Casual meals at the family's impossibly long dining table (that often feels empty even when it's completely full of people) turn into awkward and inappropriate arenas for dancing and singing and flirting. Long pauses and longer eye contact make everyone around her uneasy, particularly her husband.
"Just be yourself!" Nick growls at her, but there's barely a self there. As the daily routine starts to grate on Mabel (and Nick's impatience swells), it all unravels and her anxiousness turns to frenzy. With simultaneous reluctance and determination Nick has her committed to an institution for six months (an incredibly heartbreaking scene) and that's when we really see that Nick isn't just a lovable brute. He's manic -- downright unhinged at times -- and barely shuffles his way through Mabel's hiatus. When Mabel returns home, there's a hectic and then violent resolution to her welcome home party, which eventually cools down, leaving us with more questions than answers and a pervading melancholy.
These are powerful, honest performances on display (Rowlands' portrayal of the disintegrating housewife and mother won her an Oscar nomination) yet absolutely difficult to endure at times. While this intense emotionality is the epicenter of 'A Woman Under the Influence,' the film's stylistic nuances help immerse us in the troubled family's world. A friend remarked to me earlier this week that Cassavetes' films always make him feel like he's intruding on someone's private conversations. We can thank the director's scripted -- but still improvisational -- performances, unconventional angles and frames, hand-held takes and uncomfortable close-ups for that feeling.
It's worth noting that in the midst of all of the hysteria, the camera manages to remain controlled. It's during these moments that we're able to catch our breath after Cassavetes has plunged us into the narrative, and left us to thrash and struggle alongside his characters. As much as we think we know about the family when the skin starts to peel back, not everything is entirely revealing, but these quieter moments are.
Perhaps the saddest part about Mabel's isolated existence is her relationship with her three children. Her love for them is effusive, but she's still troubled and insecure about their bond. There are no real rules when it comes to the kids and she plays all the same games they do -- often spinning in circles and humming songs, lost in her own head. Our frame finds her in the midst of a backyard party for her children and their friends, having awkward conversation with the neighbor.
It's a scene that mars her stability before she's shipped off to the funny farm for electro shock therapy. The stillness, simplicity and symbolism of this frame reveals a twofold innocence and disconnect making Mabel's impending lock down all the more distressing. Some of Mabel's coping mechanisms are a reminder of the free-spiritedness and jouissance that exists within her, but these genuine and misguided displays have also tethered her to a life that continues to harm her "condition." That Cassavetes was able to capture every beautiful, sorrowful and frustrating step of this character's life in such a truthful way is a testament to his abilities as a filmmaker.