August 28, 2011

Must Watch Before You Die #18: A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Discovering a great filmmaker is always a pleasure. And it is so much more if that filmmaker is an auteur, and his expression personal. It seems you have just tasted a new cuisine, and reaffirms your belief that the discovery of cinema is an unending experience.

I just got introduced to the cinema of John Cassavetes. And then realized I have seen him act – in Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. On reading, I got to know that Cassavetes was one of the founders of independent cinema in Hollywood. He made small-budget films, investing the money he earned from acting in mainstream movies, casting his own family and friends. He also dared to bypass the distribution system by personally persuading the theatre-owners to release his films. And he made some extremely personal films, developing a unique style of his own. Needless to say, after reading all this I’m anyway biased for this filmmaker now. But even while watching his movie, before I had read about him, I could feel his voice rising through his work, powerful and personal – it was like watching an European film made in Hollywood. I was so deeply affected by it that I decided to recommend it here.

Insanity has been a favourite topic among filmmakers. Insane characters are definitely a hit among the actors. But films featuring them have to tread a difficult path. We can recount numerous films on psychosis that either get repulsively melodramatic or dark. The characters evoke pity and sympathy in us – emotions we do not cherish. We do not love to pity, we love to love and admire. We do not want to cry and cry, we want to smile and cry. Movies dealing with a subject like this always have the risk of falling into these danger areas. However, the biggest challenge for a movie with such ‘unusual’ characters is to make the audience embrace them as they are, and not empathize with them from a distance. A good writer will always strive to attain that. A great director will maneuver his resources in order to achieve that.

Just a few weeks ago I had recommended ‘Breaking the Waves’ which is the story of an ‘unusual’ girl’s devoted love for her husband. ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ kept reminding me of that. But while ‘Breaking the Waves’ talks about love and faith, this movie is a critical observation of the human society, less spiritual, less sentimental.

Watch ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ to see a master director at work; it is one example of a ‘director’s film’. Despite the outstandingly powerful performances by the actors, including Mrs. Cassavetes – Gena Rowlands in the title role, you can see the director as their puppeteer, knowing when to pull his strings, and when to let them loose, allowing his brilliant actors the spontaneity and the space they truly deserve. Finally, the film should be watched for its point-of-view – of extrapolating the question of sanity and the lack of it to the mankind, which must have been the writer-director’s motive since the day he conceived of the film. His triumph is not in merely being able to convey his point, but to do that without resorting to sensationalism, melodrama, or pretensions. Films as finely balanced as this are rare, and timeless.


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