A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Family is an integral aspect and concept inhabiting human existence. Conflicts among those closest to us are inevitable, and their eventual resolutions may be civil or volatile. We also depend on familial relations for support, love, and resiliency. Joyous occasions, such as a birth, can facilitate immense celebration and happiness. An illness in a family member can create fear, panic, reflection, yet enhanced connectivity. Thus, it is quite evident that the idea of medicine extends beyond physical and mental illness to encompass the vital component of familial coping and interaction with their loved ones. “A Woman Under the Influence” is a brilliant 1974 drama film directed by John Cassavetes, demonstrating the wide array of familial emotions in the midst of a loved one’s illness.

Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) is a hard-working construction worker married to Mabel (Gena Rowlands) and father to three children. He is quite preoccupied with others’ perceptions of Mabel’s eccentricities, and serves to exert a great deal of control over her decision-making and her behaviour. Mabel is acutely aware of this power dynamic, and puts a great deal of effort in trying to be a great “hostess”. She is greatly disturbed and confused by others’ expectations of her behaviour, manifesting into odd mannerisms and occasional outbursts. A variety of events over the course of a day including questionable conduct at a children’s party to a heated confrontation with her mother-in-law Margaret (Katherine Cassavetes) led to Mabel’s certification and involuntary psychiatric hospitalization for six months. Upon her return home, the familial expectation was complete cure (i.e. acting within the norms of society). It quickly became apparent that illness in any shape or form involves recovery – experiencing life in the present and using healthy coping strategies to deal with daily challenges.

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This film has multiple assets which effectively conveys the stressors involved in living with mental illness. The acting is absolutely sublime. Peter Falk palpably harbours anger, confusion, and discontent with the reality of his ideal vision of family. The supporting cast’s emotions greatly increase the intensity and concern of their loved ones. However, I feel that it is Gena Rowlands’ acting talent and complete engulfment into Mabel’s world which makes this film a classic. She epitomizes the central struggle of a fragile individual living with a strained marriage and mental illness. As well, the long scenes feel improvised, allowing the viewers to watch an encounter where individuals’ behaviours evolve. Emotions heighten, and behaviours may become more unhinged and disintegrative in realtime. This enhances the fidelity of the film to many real-life circumstances, whereby the snowball effect leads to a potential familial crisis and an eventual intervention.

I believe that the title of the film lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Specifically, how was Mabel under the influence? Were her behaviours a manifestation of alcohol use, true mental illness, her personality, her reality, or her family’s expectations? In truth, a multifaceted lens needs to be adopted in understanding anyone’s behaviour. Psychiatry as well as other areas of medicine operates under a biopsychosocial model, in which biology, psychology, and social factors contribute to wellness or illness. Culture is another component influencing health care professionals’ and the public’s opinions on the manifestations of mental illness. Mabel’s behaviours and eventual hospitalization were not solely from an organic basis. They culminated from many aspects and ideas of our Western societal and cultural perception of illness, norms, and wellness.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

I do not own any of the images in this post. This post is also a part of a blogathon I am hosting between May 26 – 28 related to Medicine in the Movies! Please check out other related posts over the next few days as we discuss the impact of the medical field on cinema!

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Random Harvest (1942)

Memories based on everyday and momentous experiences form the basis of human development and identity. Their formation and foundation can create an environment of empowerment and growth of knowledge. Conversely, their presence can sometimes traumatize and significantly regress one’s path to self-actualization. The wish to eradicate some painful memories has been held by all at some instance. However, I could not fathom anyone yearning to erase joyful recollections imprinted for years in their brains. Some individuals living with neurocognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, are robbed of the grandest and most beautiful memories with no mercy. Random Harvest is a 1942 drama-romance film directed by Mervyn LeRoy which explores the potentially devastating effects of memory loss on individual identity and surrounding relationships.

“John Smith” (Ronald Colman) has been hospitalized at Melbridge County Asylum for over a year following his harrowing experiences on the battlefield of WWI. His diagnosis would fit with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but he has dissociated from the raw emotions of his experiences to the point where he cannot remember his own identity. While wandering away from the psychiatric facility on the night of WWI’s end, he meets Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson) in the town of Melbridge. She is a local actress and dancer who empathizes with “Smithy” to the point of finding a home in the countryside to escape authorities and unwitting family members. As in many classic films, the two rapidly fall in love and marry. Smithy’s newly discovered writing talent blossoms into a job proposal, but a head injury inflicted via automobile accident allows Smithy to remember and slide into his previous life as the wealthy Charles Rainier. Paula is inevitably obliterated from his memory with few reminders of her once great impact. Themes of abandonment, jealousy, anger, detachment, frustration, and never-ending hope engross the remaining intertwining journey of our lead characters. This leads to an ultimate tear-jerking finale which will melt even the coldest, steel-engulfed hearts.

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“Random Harvest” is an interesting and multi-faceted title for this film. Paula and Smithy meet during the typical harvest season (Autumn) randomly it seems in a tobacco shop. The estate to which Charles Rainier and his siblings are entitled is called “Random Hall”. Separately, these words and their place in the film could definitely account for its title. However, the definition of the word “harvest” lends to growth and cultivation, which is what led to Paula and Smithy’s glorious bond and millions of other relationships. As well, the two were randomly brought together, and their relationship was randomly taken away. Hence, their growing interconnected maturation was inadvertently interrupted for varying reasons. Others may beg to differ, citing that no event or association is truly random. Regardless, the atrocity of the events occurring in these characters’ lives is incomprehensible, and we greatly empathize with them.

These drastic impediments yet intermittent delights in the film create a harrowing atmosphere leading viewers to the edge of their seats, fabricating major peaks and valleys of emotion. Our own fears and relatedness to memory heightens the concern and sentimentality in the film. We feel overwhelmed, frightened yet optimistic for the characters’ resolutions. Overall, I feel that “tear-jerker” is an understatement for this beautiful film.

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I do not own the photos in this post. As well, this post is a part of the “No, YOU’RE Crying” Blogathon hosted by Moon In Gemini! Please check out the other posts related to tear-jerker films over the coming days!

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Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock has repeatedly been touted over decades as “the master of suspense”. After leisurely conveying character development in the initial stages of his films, we are undoubtedly drawn into their worlds after growing to care about them. Careful cinematography and witty dialogue then set the stage for a multitude of suspenseful acts, which stirs a great deal of emotions including fear, anger, hopelessness, and shock. The classic 1954 film “Rear Window” is no exception. The claustrophobic and restricted settings in this film only serve to enhance our restlessness and anxiety, as well as concern for the beloved actors in the lead roles.

L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries, played by the incomparable and relatable James Stewart, is a photographer living in New York City who has broken his leg due to a workplace injury. He is confined to a wheelchair and thus his apartment, spectating the neighbours through his “rear window”. He gazes upon the diverse yet mundane lives of many of his neighbours secondary to his lack of social and physical activity. On one of his voyeuristic expeditions, he believes that he may have witnessed a murder and becomes obsessed with solving it. His fashionable and intelligent girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (the iconic Grace Kelly), and his nurse, Stella (the hilarious Thelma Ritter), become as equally absorbed as Jeff in this pseudo-investigation. As bystanders, our enthrallment and distance from the actual happenings of the film creates intense discomfort and simultaneous curiosity.

The old adage “a person’s eyes is a window to their soul” refers to unspoken truths that others interpret through our self-perceived hidden expressions. Conversely, I feel that a window could be seen as eyes peering into the souls of others. Referring to our main character’s occupation, photography can beautifully capture raw emotion for eternity. There is a broad scope, depth, and evolution to our daily lives, yet haphazard viewing of our mannerisms may lead to either correct or incorrect elucidation of our realities. This concurrent sense of connection and detachment can lead the viewers/voyeurs to be judgmental of others, which could create suspicion and fear. It is through conversation and approachability that we are able to truly understand and appreciate others’ struggles and joys. Passive scrutiny can therefore be bypassed when we exit through doors and stop peering through windows.

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I do not own the above image.