Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744
Woman Under the Influence draws on all three traditional visions of female madness, combining elements of each with great subtlety and perceptiveness. From one perspective, Mabel is an Eve who is weak, passive, and childlike. Thus it is difficult for her to resist husband, parents, friends—all those who are trying to make her conform to their expectations. Yet her childlike nature has its positive side; she is vital and creative in contrast to the conventional adults who condemn her…. Although she is presented as having an artistic temperament, Mabel's creativity is restricted to the invention of games and she never considers other outlets for her talents. (p. 11)
Mabel's touch of Lilith resides in her repressed sexuality. Restless and lonesome for intimacy, she reaches out to a kind stranger in a bar though she really loves her husband. But his job and male friends keep him occupied and her needs are great. Even with her husband's friends, she makes innocent mistakes because she doesn't understand the limits set on physical affection. As a result of Mabel's nature, her husband suffers: he is cuckholded; he is embarrassed in front of his friends, who think he is married to a crazy; he is nagged by his mother to keep his wife in line for the sake of the children.
At the same time, the film develops another perspective on the situation. Mabel is clearly victimized by the familiar authoritarian male triangle of husband, doctor, and father. Yet they are not melodramatic villains, perverts, or emotional zombies from the Gaslight tradition. Instead, they are kind and loving—more like the men in Renoir's films who commit acts of cruelty out of ignorance and clumsiness. The extreme realism of the film shows how a woman can be driven to "madness" under the most benign conditions. On the one hand, this underlines the fact that it is not her fault, yet at the same time it makes her situation more terrifying. (pp. 11-12)
Most interesting and frightening is her complex interaction with her husband, who undeniably loves her, but whose understanding and patience are extremely limited. Even worse for Mabel is the double bind he repeatedly creates for her. Sometimes, they are in cahoots, together against the world, and he reinforces her eccentricity. But when she goes "too far," he gets frightened and becomes the incarnation of conventional authority. This authority makes him so righteous that he will beat her up in front of the children to assure her proper behavior. He is frequently so confused that he doesn't know whether to kiss her or slug her. One of the most valuable dimensions of the film is the fluid, detailed development of their interchanges, showing how reality and her "madness" are a mutual creation.
From a broader perspective, the film also reveals how Mabel is "under the influence" of the entire social structure, which (in the Laingian sense) establishes the schizophrenogenic family context. Madness grows not out of the weakness of individuals, but out of the psychodynamics of the social group, with its double-bind situations, and its insistence on the need to control the self and others in order to maintain the norms. In this sense, the society creates madness by defining it. Mabel's eccentric behavior is defined as crazy and she is punished accordingly. In contrast, society is willing to tolerate the equally extreme behavior of the husband who bullies her and the doctor who chases her across the room and over the furniture in an attempt to control her. (p. 12)
Woman Under the Influence , with its penetrating realism, offers [great] insight into...
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the fluid definitions of sanity and the ways in which ordinary social interaction can create madness. This understanding is totally communicated through particulars; the ideology and analysis are invisible. This strategy forces the audience to experience the pressures of the double-bind situation with Mabel and her family; we are drawn into the schizophrenogenic unit, which makes us terribly uncomfortable and anxious. The film has tremendous power to move and disturb us. Yet like the other "enlightened" films—[Bergman's]Persona, [Bresson's] Une Femme Douce, and [Antonioni's] Red Desert—and despite its brilliance and emotional power, Woman Under the Influence ends up showing the female as history has always wanted to see her—lovely, sensitive, and powerless—the inevitable victim. (pp. 12, 33)
Marsha Kinder and Beverle Houston, "Madwomen in the Movies: Women Under the Influence," in Film Heritage (copyright 1976 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 11, No. 2, Winter, 1975–76, pp. 1-12, 33.∗