John Cassavetes’ first masterpiece is an almost unbearably study of middle-aged, middle-class desperation.
After the critical success of Shadows, John Cassavetes took himself off to Hollywood, where he would have a few acting gigs and get to direct a couple of mainstream studio projects, both of which were so disastrous that they effectively killed off his career for a few years, as both director and actor. Eventually, he’d start to get roles on screen again, and from the late Sixties onwards would alternative between appearing in mainstream movies – some respectable, some pure exploitation – and directing a series of self-financed, very personal, very intimate indie films that the acting gigs helped pay for. The first of these was Faces, made in 1968 – the same year he co-starred in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
Faces is heavy going. Far removed from the freewheeling style of Shadows, and some way from the deliberately paced style of later films, this is a thoroughly grim drama, shot on grainy black and white 16mm film, that explores the empty lives of a bunch of middle-aged, middle-class executives and their wives, as they desperately search for love outside their loveless marriages and hopelessly cling on to vestiges of youth and happiness.
Never has a film with so much laughter been so utterly miserable. There’s near-constant laughter from everyone involved during the first half, though none of it convinces – it’s all too desperate, all too forced. These are clearly miserable people who think that a few drinks, a few jokes and a pathetic determination to be seen as having fun will be enough to save them from their loneliness and pain. At any moment, as with any self-hating drunk, the laughter will end and the anger, the self-loathing and the pain will emerge, and as the film progresses, this becomes more and more obvious.
Cassavetes wasn’t interested in making films as entertainment, and Faces certainly isn’t an enjoyable viewing experience in any conventional sense. Shot with a cold documentary style, it’s often very difficult to watch, and at 130 minutes, really hammers home the point. But that’s not to suggest that the film isn’t rewarding. As we follow the two main protagonists Richard (John Marley) and his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) in their desperate search for fleeting escape in the arms of others (Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel respectively), we certainly get an insight into their depressing world, a world that they seem doomed to never escape – their affairs, Richard’s demand for a divorce, all being temporary, unsuccessful shots at an attempt to find a life that is probably not even out there for them. Cassavetes portrays this through long, handheld scenes that – appropriately, given the title – concentrate on the worn-down faces of his uniformly excellent cast, all too convincingly real as the sadness behind their eyes reveals the truth of the forced joviality. The end result is a film that is brilliant, but utterly exhausting – you’ll need something light and frothy to follow it with unless you want to be on a downer for the rest of the day.
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