Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 860

The theories of R. D. Laing the poet of schizophrenic despair, have such theatrical flash that they must have hit John Cassavetes smack in the eye. His new film, A Woman Under the Influence, is the work of a disciple: it's a didactic illustration of Laing's vision of insanity, with … Mabel Longhetti [as] the scapegoat of a repressive society that defines itself as normal. The core of the film is a romanticized conception of insanity, allied with the ancient sentimental mythology of madness centering on the holy fool and with the mythology about why Christ was crucified. The picture is based on the idea that the crazy person is endowed with a clarity of vision that the warped society can't tolerate, and so is persecuted. (p. 392)

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It's never suggested that there's something wrong with Mabel for not getting herself together. Others reduce her to pulp; she's not a participant in her own destruction. The romantic view of insanity is a perfect subject for Cassavetes to muck around with. Yet even in this season when victimization is the hottest thing in the movie market this scapegoat heroine doesn't do a damn thing for him. He's always on the verge of hitting the big time, but his writing and directing are grueling, and he swathes his popular ideas in so many wet blankets that he is taken seriously—and flops. In Faces and Husbands Cassavetes might almost have been working his way up to Laing; his people were already desolate, hanging on to marriages that made no sense to them because nothing else did, either….

Mabel, however, is more (and less) than a character, since she's a totally sympathetic character: she's a symbolic victim, and a marriage victim especially. Cassavetes has hooked Laing on to his own specialty—the miseries of sexual union. (p. 394)

Like all Cassavetes' films, A Woman Under the Influence is a tribute to the depth of feelings that people can't express. As a filmmaker, he himself has a muffled quality: his scenes are often unshaped and so rudderless that the meanings don't emerge. This time, he abandons his handsome, grainy simulated-cinéma-vérité style. The shots are planned to make visual points that bear out the thesis (though there are also arbitrary, ornamental angles, and vistas that make a workingman's cramped house big as a palace). But once again he has made a murky, ragmop movie. Actually, he doesn't know how to dramatize, and one can try to make a virtue of this for only so long. When the actors in his films strike off each other, there are tentative, flickering moods that one doesn't get in other kinds of movies, but these godsends are widely spaced, and it's a desert in between. He still prolongs shots to the point of embarrassment (and beyond). He does it deliberately, all right, but to what purpose? Acute discomfort sets in, and though some in the audience will once again accept what is going on as raw, anguishing truth, most people will—rightly, I think—take their embarrassment as evidence of Cassavetes' self-righteous ineptitude.

His special talent—it links his work to Pinter's—is for showing intense suffering from nameless causes; Cassavetes and Pinter both give us an actor's view of human misery. It comes out as metaphysical realism: we see the tensions and the power plays but never know the why of anything. Laing provides Cassavetes with an answer....

(The entire section contains 860 words.)

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