A woman under the influence (film)


This film makes a disturbing and sad viewing but it's a bitter-sweet lesson about how we treat those that are eccentric or with mental health illness. 

It's set amongst a working class family in 70s Los Angeles, the husband Nick Longhetti (Peter Faulk) works for the city water works and lives with his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands) and their 3 children. 

It's not easy looking after 3 small children as well as the neighbours' kids, but Mabel takes it all in full force. She has child-like energy and earnestness, and the film does not dwell on that diagnosis the medical profession would label her with. Instead, it portrays the blurred lines between eccentricity and mental illness and how society treats her in different ways to even the most odious "normals".

Cassavete shows how people become awkard or don't know how to deal with someone that is not boring and polite. Some who are more tolerant just go with the flow and treat Mabel with respect and have a bit of fun with her. Mabel's behaviour also irks at Nick's insecurity, who constantly asks those around him: "Do you think my wife is mad?". He fails to think about how his behaviour may contribute to the chaotic surrounding, by constantly drinking and bringing in throngs of people at no notice. Because Mabel is considered "odd" any unhappiness or stress in their lives are blamed on her.

Those that think that she is mentally ill immediately see her as inferior, someone they can be rude to, someone they can tell what to do, someone they can dismiss. Or she's treated like a medical subject to be injected with serums so she can become "normal". The film shows the hypocrisy of those around Mabel in how she becomes a scapegoat for all their insecurities, jealousy, stress in their lives. People let out their anger and frustration because they think that's how she can be treated.   

In the end, Nick ends up sending Mabel away to a hospital so she can be "normal". While she's away the house and childcare quickly fall apart and Nick feeds them beers to make them drowsy and behave themselves. He is desperate for her to come back and look after the household and the kids. He plans a big party for her return.

Dozens of people turn up to see Mabel return home: people from the neighbourhood who cherished her personality and energy. But Nick, in his insecurity against Mabel's popularity, shoos them away under the disguise of "Oh we don't want her to get too excited".

The returned Mabel is calm and docile: she behaves as if they would want her to behave so she doesn't have to go back to the hospital. She's lost control over her body and is subjected the to medical directions and opinions of those around her. But quiet and timid Mabel is not the Mabel Nick is used to; drunk and confused, he begs her to be normal again, to just be herself!

The title; a woman under the influence, its judgmental tone, refers to how society criticises Mabel and questions her mind. At the same time it refers to how Mabel is influenced by others: Nick's constant drinking and carousing, the mother-in-law's spying and finally, a doctor turning her into a medical subject thus forcing Mabel to relinquish autonomy over her body and mind.

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