‘A Woman Under the Influence’ – The Power of Female Leads

Hooria Mohammad is in her second year of study at the University of Toronto where she double majors in Earth and Environmental Systems and Political Science, with a minor in Cinema Studies.


John Cassavetes’ vehement, audacious, and unique filmmaking has made him an established progenitor of American independent film. However, it is his most venerated film A Woman Under the Influence (1974) that illustrates the foundation of his innovative and unconventional method of filmmaking. The elements of this film that make it such a salient viewing experience are not just anchored in its hybrid nature of classical and art cinema but in Gena Rowland’s unforgettable and career-defining performance that underscores the power of females on screen for encouraging representation. This representation simultaneously voices female perspectives and people struggling with mental illness.

A Women Under the Influence paints the portrait of Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands), an unstable suburban housewife who’s exhausting emotional journey of turmoil forces her to wrestle with saving her from herself. At the centre of the storm, we follow Mabel who is quickly being disassembled by a mental illness that is driving her to madness. The film’s exploration of sexual politics and challenges of domestic life gives a raw and uncompromising look into the insanity of the Longhetti family.

Gena Rowlands gives an unforgettable and career-defining performance of a character navigating through the challenges of the patriarchal society she is confined in. The representation in this film is not just of women but of people struggling with mental illness. The narrative discusses the issues of patriarchal norms, upholding the notion of a nuclear family, and the oppression of women with mental illness. This film stresses these issues through Mabel’s pressure to a perfect housewife, her internal conflicts with mental illness, and how the men in her life govern her domestic life.

Similarly, in classical cinema, dialogue is used frequently as a device to demonstrate the character’s problems and although the opposite may be true for Mabel considering her ticks and mannerisms; the characters give a great deal away about themselves through their lines. The film follows the art cinema narrative with its lack of resolution at the ending. The closing of the film captures Mabel and her husband (Nick) getting ready for bed as an upbeat song plays non-diegetically. This ending leaves the audience with many unanswered questions, especially considering Mabel’s episode of injuring herself right before. These questions leave the audience a bit unsettled or even confused by happy music playing for the closing to a movie that consisted predominantly of raw and even jarring emotional struggle. Ambiguity and realism are core principles and practices in art cinema. The film achieves both simultaneously with this ending. The realism lies in the ending’s lack of unity. Life often has questions
that are never answered. Like Mabel, people grapple with mental illness for their entire lives, but such is life—messy, confusing and often ambiguous.


The themes of ambiguity and realism serve to emphasize the female perspective and mental illness. Cassavetes incorporates many long scenes of characters doing mundane things like cooking spaghetti. The setting is a real place (LA), the problems are real-life problems (mental illness), and the characters are real psychologically complex people. A significant example of the realism within the film is presented in an approximately 16-minute scene with Nick’s coworkers eating spaghetti. A great deal of that time is
spent wondering. Almost as if the camera moved around the table and captured real conversations–creating the illusion of improvisation. The natural atmosphere of people talking over each other and arms blocking the camera give that purely authentic appearance and allowing the performances to flow out organically. The actors seem to just play characters rather than deliver dialogue. The scenes almost feel like they are in real-time like Béla Tarr’s 1994 Satantango.


The film’s tone of cinema verité (however, none of the film was improvised) or even mockumentary style, with the shaky camera and close-ups, pairs perfectly with the realist narrative and style of the film. The viewer can even feel Cassavetes presence at times. However, it is done so masterfully
that one is not taken out of the film and the captivating performances keep the viewer drawn in. Cassavetes’ immense involvement in the filmmaking process demonstrates his authorship. He took the art cinema approach for the financing and distribution of the film. Since nobody wanted to finance a film about a middle-aged unstable woman, he took it upon himself to do so. The crew predominantly consisted of film students. The film became one of the first successfully independently distributed films and proved as an even greater success because it was led by a female character with mental illness.


John Cassavetes gives us a look into an amply detailed experience of the gut-wrenching challenges faced by the Longhetti family. The film’s close, personal and at times invasive portrait of the modern women’s role in an American nuclear family demonstrate her constant battle with the dichotomy of hope and fear. Cassavetes’ attention to detail and utilization of art and classical cinema elevates a story that grabs the attention of an audience and leaves a lasting impression. His use of alienation, complex
character psychologies, and jerky camera realism that resemble home video style reflect his immense influence from art cinema. Cassavetes’s general cause-effect narrative, mise-en-scene, and sociopolitical norms resemble classical cinema practices and techniques. A Women Under the Influence serves as a monumental moment in cinema because it illuminates the power of female representation and discussing mental illness. His scrupulous blending of classical and art cinema conventions and female-driven storytelling elevates this film and is exactly what makes Cassavetes an eminent filmmaker.


Image Source: MOMA, https://www.moma.org/calendar/film/1001