Is Mabel Longhetti Crazy?
The title question and my negative answer shall, I hope, serve as a springboard for close investigation of certain aspects of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. It is thus less a thesis than an organizing principle. Since my thesis is not original, I take this as a virtue.
The world certainly believes Mabel is crazy, with perhaps the exception of her husband, Nick (and yet he is the one who calls Dr. Zepp to take her to the nuthouse—more on this later). Thus it has her locked up, treads lightly around her when she is free, and refuses all of her uncomfortable advances. But she is not crazy.
She can be interpreted as crazy because of these uncomfortable advances. For instance, at the beginning of the film, she interacts with one of her husband’s coworkers in a way that, for most people, would constitute flirting. Her husband is right there, as are many other of his coworkers. The night before, she took a man (not her husband) home, then kicked him out screaming in the morning, asking where her kids are (her mother took them the prior day so that she could have time alone with her husband).
There are two other scenes where she might seem crazy. One is the sedative scene, a scene every bit as hard to watch as the sedative scene in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. There, she acts like a deranged, caged animal, terrified and frightened, while the doctor first tries to talk to her, then give her a sedative. She makes what might be taken as paranoid accusations about her mother-in-law keeping her from her kids. The second is the scene, after she is released from the “nuthouse”, in which she tries to commit suicide after a welcome home party in which she becomes increasingly uncomfortable.
Why does she seem crazy? She is clearly aloof from social conventions. In the scene at dinner, early in the film, she gets very close to Billy, violating the norms of reaction bubbles (link to an elucidatory image). Her husband yells at her to stop, and explains later that she didn’t do anything wrong, but that Billy would get the wrong idea. Similarly, just prior to the sedative scene, some of her kids’ friends come over, and Mabel tries to get their father (Harold) to dance. After he refuses, the kids go inside for a costume party, and we end up with two naked young girls running around the house, to the horror of Harold and, when they return, Nick and his mother. (It is this incident that prompts Nick to call Dr. Zepp.) Once again, she has violated social norms.
It is this aloofness from social convention that makes her seem crazy. People can only understand her actions by fitting them to some pre-established social role. Thus Garson (the man she brings home) tries to understand whether she is getting back at her husband using him (or some related alternative). Nick makes Mabel sit down at dinner (when she is getting too close to Billy) because Nick believes Billy will only be able to interpret her actions by fitting them to the social norms of personal space: if Mabel is getting into Billy’s personal and intimate space (see the image above), it must (so he will think) be because she is interested in him romantically, is flirting with him. (Of course she is interested in him, but not like that.)
Such aloofness is not craziness, however. Moreover, Mabel is painfully aware of this, and is constantly asking her husband what she is supposed to, worrying whether she did something wrong, etc. She tries to fit in, to conform to the norms. She fails, and so she is taken as crazy. Yet she is really just trying to get other people to react in a spontaneous, non-socially determined way with her. She wants Garson, Harold, Billy, to dance with her—a request each refuses (except Billy—Nick refuses for him).
But what about the sedative scene? Surely there she has a nervous breakdown, at least. If we closely attend to what happens, though, this interpretation falls apart. She has just been “caught” with the two naked girls, first by Harold, then by Nick and Margaret (his mother). We must understand that up to this point she has done nothing crazy. She has simply done something not socially allowed, though she can see no harm in it. (This for the simple reason that, beyond the social convention, there is no harm in it. In a way, Mabel can be said to have a very pure ethical vision, untainted by the moralizing of social norms.) Nick freaks out, calls the doctor, and freaks out some more, all while his mother is even worse. He yells at Mabel, who is for the most part meek, though clearly upset.
Then Dr. Zepp arrives. From that point on, Mabel more and more starts acting like a caged animal. You might attribute this to her having a nervous breakdown, but there is no need to do so. For her caged-animal-like behavior is fully explained by her literally being a caged animal. She is, in more ways than one, backed into a corner, terrified. So she lashes out. The behavior that ultimately gets her taken away is, in fact, the most sensible, understandable, reasonable, and justified behavior in the entire film: a caged animal acts like a caged animal. (Perhaps she would have gotten out of it by acting “civilized”, responding calmly and “rationally”, but then civilization is precisely what is treating her so savagely. Why should she sell her soul to the devil?)
As for the attempted suicide scene, it too is not at all crazy. Mabel has just come home from the asylum to a party with her family. (Nick wanted a much larger party, but Margaret kicked everybody else out right before Mabel arrived.) She tries to joke, but is clearly uncomfortable, much less free than before—her experience has not left her. At one point she starts recounting parts of it, but is told to stop. Eventually, she can no longer take it, and asks everyone to leave. Margaret, who has so far been quite kind and thoughtful, so it seems, refuses to leave because “I came here for a party.” This immediately reveals that her apparent concern and sympathy earlier was not genuine, but simply part of an attempt to fill the social role of caring mother-in-law. So no one leaves. Mabel starts acting out more and more, until finally it is too much, and people leave. (Does Mabel do this consciously? Perhaps, but then she would have to know a good deal about social roles that she did not before—a chilling thought.)
Alone with Nick, she reprises the dying swan dance from earlier in the film. Before, she and the kids (hers and Harold’s) had performed it in a scene that exemplifies Mabel’s freedom. (It also exemplifies how kids, unlike everyone else, are open to her freedom. In one of the more tragically hilarious scenes in the film, Harold tells Mabel that he worries about leaving his kids with her!) Here, however, it takes on a new resonance: she is the dying swan, and soon after she tries to commit suicide, though Nick stops her. I think it should be clear that it is the hostility of the world, a world that hates her freedom (if patriotic Americans want to know what hatred of freedom is, this film provides a better example than any foreign country), that drives her to such an extreme. It is certainly not an illness.
So Mabel is not crazy. Yet neither is she fully healthy. She is free, unconstrained (internally) by social norms (which is why the external constraints society imposes on her are so traumatic), but her freedom is not a balanced freedom, not stable. Why is this? Precisely because of her aloofness. Instead of being able to trope social norms (e.g. in an Emersonian way), twisting them to her own ends, modifying them, exploring their possibilities, she just hovers above them. Her purity (in the sense described above) is on the one hand admirable, but on the other hand means that she is not well suited to survive in a socially constrained world (and there is no other world to survive in, at least not any other such world with dance partners). Instead of dancing around and on social conventions, she dances entirely outside them. Hence she is unstable. Hence the world is traumatic for her.
The difference between instability and insanity is not merely verbal. It is crucial to understanding the film. If Mabel is crazy, insane, then she needs paternalistic care. She needs Dr. Zepp’s sedative, needs her stay in the asylum. If Mabel is merely unstable, and her instability is the flip side of her freedom, however, what she needs is exactly the opposite of paternalistic care. If she is unstable, paternalistic care is precisely what would break her—which is exactly what happens in the film. Only when she is “offered” (ha!) “help” does she have a nervous breakdown, and only from the perspective of those trying to help can it be characterized as a breakdown. If she is unstable, it is the incessant paternalism of the world that is crazy.
It is the world, not Mabel that is insane. Mabel’s apparent “insanity” is simply her inability to survive in such an insane world, try as she might.