Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Faces Are Nothing More Than Masks


One of the things I love about cinema is the unexpected gems that are discovered purely by chance. Had my wife not gone to the gym and left me home to watch our baby I might not have come across John Cassavetes film Faces. As my little guy was starting to drift asleep awkwardly in my arms the only thing I could do was play a movie to pass the time. Fortunately I stumbled upon Faces on Netflix Canada and figured I would watch a few minutes until he was fully asleep. Needless to say a few minutes turned into a full two hours as I was simply captivated by the film.

Nominated for three Academy Awards in 1969, Faces examines the collapse of a 14 year marriage. When the relationship between Richard Forst (John Marley) and Maria Forst (Lynn Carlin) slowly becomes strained, Richard abruptly demands a divorce. As the couple have become disenchanted with what they expect from each other in the marriage, they both seek comfort in the arms of other people. Richard immediately goes to a high class prostitute, Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), who is in love with him, and Maria, after a night out with a few other housewives, finds herself in the arms of an aging playboy, Chet (Seymour Cassel).

At first glance, Faces seems to be a film that is comprised of several really good scenes that are loosely tied together. Some scenes run on so long that the audience may forget moments that came before it. However, as the film progresses Cassavetes point becomes much clearer. He depicts a marriage where the participants have been unhappy for a while, but just did not know it. The revelation of the inherent sadness of their marriage is not only found in Richard and Maria’s union, but also in the other housewives that Maria associates with.

The way Cassavetes portrays the sexes in the film is what really makes Faces compelling. Cassavetes essentially shows that often men are nothing more than little children who never really grow up. Each male character in the film wants to be viewed as a king of sorts. They expect every woman they are with to worship them, yet their childish insecurities often seep through. It is the women in the film who really demand the viewer’s attention. The women in Faces are tired of constantly begin neglected by their men, and only receiving affection when it is on the man’s terms. There is a hopelessness to the women as they seem to keep repeating the cycle. This is especially evident in the characters of Jeanine and Maria.

While both Rowlands and Carlin give great performances, it is Carlin who really steals the film. The second half of Faces primarily focuses on the relationship between Maria and Chet and is easily the highlight of the film. Carlin masterfully conveys both the desire for freedom and the guilt of not being able to cope with her situation. There have been many films that observe marriages falling apart, yet there is something about Faces that makes it stand apart from others in this genre. Whether it is the way Cassavetes lets a scene linger or the performances from his cast, Faces turned out to be a pleasant surprise despite its depressing subject matter.


  1. Johnny B!3:00 pm

    I'll have to check it out. The basic idea reminds me of "Blue Valentine" but of course there are other plot puts that you have noted. I will check it out, I do like Cassavetes!

  2. I don't think I have seen any Cassavetes films before. Would you say this is a good place to start?

  3. I've just watched my first 2 Cassavetes this past week off NetFlix (they expire on Aug 3rd) - caught both Shadows and A Woman Under The Influence. Both are terrific in their own ways - though I don't expect A Woman Under The Influence is something I would gladly watch multiple times (it's frustrating and uncomfortable at the best of times - certainly exactly how Cassavetes wants you to feel). Shadows, even though it's a first film and suffers from some dicey acting, is actually quite a wonder. It's one of the more interesting examinations of interracial relations I've seen using two mixed race characters (one who easily passes for white and the other who has trouble easily mixing with either whites or blacks) and has an undeniable energy that puts it right alongside something like "Breathless" (they're both from the same time period). I'm in the middle of "The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie", so I'll try to sneak in "Faces" before it expires, but if not it's a definite rental...

  4. @Johnny B – In some ways it is what Blue Valentine might look like if it was done in the sixties. There are several differences though one being that Gosling’s character in Blue Valentine is a much nicer guy than Richard.

    @Edgar – To date I have only seen three Cassavetes films: Faces, Gloria, and Woman Under the Influence. I vaguely remember seeing Big Trouble in the early 90’s but I would have to watch some scenes again to be sure. Anyways out of the ones I watched, I would saw Faces is a good place to start. Having said that, Bob does speak highly of Cassavetes’ film Shadows in the comments below yours.

    @ Bob – I had no idea Shadows was on Netflix! Hopefully I can get to it tomorrow after work before the film is pulled from the system. I watched A Woman Under the Influence tonight but I did not enjoy it as much as Faces. You are right when you stated that it is both frustrating and uncomfortable, though I think more frustrating than anything else. Alas, I do not think I can get to The Killing of A Chinese Bookie in time. You will have to let me know how that one is. I was hoping to watch Bookie right after Faces, but the wife and I ended up watching Fright Night (had not seen before) and All About Steve (an awful, awful film) instead.

  5. I have to second Bob's praise of Shadows. Althought it isn't quite the same as Cassavette's other films (it even ends with a disclaimers saying it wasn't an actual film but actually a improvisation) it is still hugely compelling and that lose, amateur quality really gives it a lot more grit and resonance.

  6. @Mike – Did not get a chance to catch Shadows as it was pulled from the system by time I got home. I will have to keep any eye out for it in the future.


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