A Woman Under the Influence ★★★★½

Finally September has come! Let the Letterboxd Season Challenge 2015-2016 begin! I started off a bit early, as I will be on holiday in a couple of weeks, so a head start will definitely come in handy.

Letterboxd Season 2015-2016 Week #1
Roger Ebert Week: Watch one of Rogert Ebert's Great Movies
My complete schedule can be found here

In general, what I will do in most of these weeks is browse the suggestion lists by average rating. That way, I can combine this challenge with my attempt to eventually complete Letterboxd's Top 250 movies. In week one, the week we're supposed to watch a previously unseen movie of Ebert's Great Movies, it brought me to A Woman Under the Influence, also because I wanted to honor the American Ebert with an American classic.

I always have a hard time judging and reviewing films that are clearly of a high standard, but are pretty hard to watch at times. This is obviously one of those cases.

What Cassavetes does here is simply magnificent... He takes a relatively easy and common story about a couple having troubles because of their own nature and the difficulties society and everyday situations faces us with and turns it into a deeply compelling drama with an ultimately positive message (at least for me). Where Mabel clearly is mentally unstable or let's call her overly eccentric (I'm refusing to call it an illness), things only really go wrong when her sensibilities are triggered. If it's because of expectations by people in her environment or her husband's temper, she loses grip on reality only when pushed over the edge. And she's only really different than others in that the figurative edge is always closer than everyone else's. That and the inability to conform to certain social standards.

During the course of this film, I kept on thinking how things could have been better for all and how Mabel's eventual break-down and confinement could have been avoided. I couldn't figure it out and you know what? Life doesn't give you those answers. It is what people struggle with everyday. It is what make human life interesting, but also sometimes extremely hard to deal with.

Mild spoilers from here

Mabel returns from the institution drained from any emotional reaction... But the sole sight of her children after all those months, break that barrier immediately. And I was happy for it. Because who are we really if our emotions are restrained to the bare minimum? People have the unique abilities to feel love, get angry, be scared, dwell in sadness. We sing, dance, cry, make love, hurt ourselves and each other, break stuff... It's what makes us who we are. And there's where Cassavetes also leaves things. Yes, Mabel still seems 'crazy' after she returns, fights with her husband and loses herself in a trippy state... But the way she blossoms when she shows and receives the love for/of her children (and her husband!) is a sight to behold. The final scene in which she and Nick return to their 'normal' lives and rituals really tops it off...

I will add a few things now that have been written dozens of times before, but need to be said to comprehend why this is a unique film.
First of all the dedication of the director. Cassavetes wanted to do this project (which initially was written to be a play, only for Gena Rowlands backing out because she found the part too draining to perform multiple times a week) so bad, he financed and distributed it himself after no one else would. It did really pay off, resulting in this film to become somewhat of a standard in indie film making.

The way he uses the camera, often handheld and in your (or the characters') face, creates the illusion you're present there. It makes you part of the story and sucks you in as a secret onlooker or even a participant.

Last but not least the two central performances. It's amazing how they pull this off with such a sense of reality... Rowlands is perfect with her physical presence and the excellent use of tics and line delivery. She creates an unpredictability in Mabel that is almost palpable. Edge of your seat performance.
Peter Falk is nothing but spectacular as the blue-collar worker Nick. He has a temper, is uncertain as a father and doesn't always make the right choices. But most of all he is human. He conveys the love for his family, despite the difficulties he is faced with everyday, in the little things. His facial expressions in some of the key scenes make you feel his conflict in his love for Mabel and his desire for her to be a bit more 'normal'. It's the pinnacle of the film's theme of human nature versus what society expects us to be (and in most cases creates us to be).

So there, I didn't make it easy on myself in the first week of this challenge, but it wouldn't be a challenge if I did, amirite? It surely paid off though.