A Woman Under The Influence – ____spection

Thoughts On: A Woman Under The Influence (1974)

A housewife with abnormal mannerisms comes into conflict with her unsympathetic friends and husband.

A Woman Under The Influence

A Woman Under The Influence is one of the most challenging films I’ve ever seen. There were numerous points at which I just wanted to turn the film off and step away from the constant hale of calamity. But, I stayed, well, I didn’t have much of a choice; I stayed because I was locked in by the terrific performances and masterful character building and so couldn’t tap out of this narrative.

This movie is much akin to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, not because both films deal with mental illness, but much rather because, when you watch these films, you feel as you’re insane for recognising a character’s ‘sanity’ when no one else will. However, whilst One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest retains a positive, even joyous, tone in spite of its ending, A Woman Under The Influence felt like one of the most devastating tragedies I’ve ever seen – again, in spite of the ending. What A Woman Under The Influence then does so well is reveal the absurdity of seeming normality as primarily presented by Nick, Mabel’s husband. Initially, Mabel only acts abnormal, but is, internally, completely rational and understandable. On the other hand, Nick has a facade of normality, but is entirely irrational and incomprehensible throughout the film. What then separates them is their social situations, which is best represented with a comparison between how both parents act around the children vs adults.

If we then compare Mabel’s party with the children to Nick’s day at the beach with them, it seems that all of the adults (apart from Mabel) that come near children are the insane ones. Not only does Nick scream, shout and then hit his wife because he was simply embarrassed when he was confronted by the party scene and its awkwardness, but he takes his children out of school and then gets them drunk on his day out with them – which says a lot by itself. If we take scenes involving adults, say for instance the spaghetti dinner and the day of Mabel’s return, we see a similar paradigm arise. Whilst Mabel’s lack social consciousness is emphasised when she clamours over guests, the tension in the room exudes from Nick’s end of the table. What’s more, consider the complete lack of social awareness and control exhibited by Nick on the night in which Mabel is meant to return. In all of these situations, Mabel is the open and positive person constantly being loomed over by the rigidity and internal embarrassment of Nick – who almost always makes situations worse when he tries to control them, or just sets himself up for a fall (again, think of the spaghetti dinner).

What then makes Mabel ‘insane’ beyond the obvious abnormalities in her behaviour is that she is open in an innocent and honest capacity. What makes Nick seem ‘sane’ is his social awareness and complete lack of openness which is often emphasised to destructive and absurd degrees by social stigmas. The defining characteristic of sanity as presented by this narrative is then control. Nick has some degree of control over himself, or at least actively aims to control social situations, whilst Mabel is an entirely free-flowing emotive force that hasn’t really got ‘control’ on her mind (until it is programmed into her near the end). However, what distinguishes the free-flowing Mabel from an impulsive child is her clear intelligence and understanding of people – Nick especially. What then leaves her ‘insane’ in social situations is a lack of compliance from those around her; again, compare her interactions with children who play along with her to adults who absolutely refuse to. The crux of insanity in this narrative is then social tension – which is what makes it so profoundly difficult to sit through.

The fact that it is Nick who has Mabel ‘changed’ and not himself by the end of the story is what makes this a true tragedy; the implication that he wants her to be like her old self only intensifying the torment. What then stood out to me in particularly about this film, despite there being a plethora of things that could be discussed, is an age-old observation. Instead of trying to change the world around him, Nick should have looked inwards, and such is an archetypal idea that you could credit to Nietzsche and psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung who urged that people search, explore and understand the darkness within themselves before anything else. Without this introspection, people can only project their own insecurities and downfalls onto the world, making it ever worse.

Whilst this appears to be the primary commentary of this narrative in my view, I’ll end by asking what you think about this film?



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