There is a lot of joy in Faces—John Cassavetes’ second real “Cassavetes” film, 10 years after Shadows—and there is also a lot of anger. Often there’s a drunken combination of the two. But no matter what emotion dominates, the movie itself has the same edge, the same itchiness. It’s constantly scratching its own skin.
Faces centers on a middle-class, middle-aged married couple who have hit a dead end. Dickie (John Marley) prowls late-night restaurants and clubs, one night ending up with a friend at the house of Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), where the two men play goofy, recess games competing for Jeannie’s attention (Dickie wins). Meanwhile, Dickie’s wife (Lynn Carlin) hits a nightclub with some of her friends, where they dance with a younger man named Chet (Seymour Cassel) who comes home with them.
With its meandering, open-ended scenes and see-sawing emotions, Faces captures how an alcohol-soaked night can turn on a dime, and how the epiphanies experienced after midnight often seem hollow and silly the next morning. If none of the flailing people here find satisfaction, it’s because it’s not really love they’re after (which would be hard enough to obtain), but youth. Jeannie and Chet aren’t only warm bodies or even new possibilities as much as they are time machines—at least while the drinks are flowing, the music is playing, and someone is dancing.
Faces gives plenty of time to the drinks, music, dancing, and talking—especially the talking. There’s an indulgence to its shambling nature. Scenes continue long after we’ve understood their intent, including those intended to exhaust us with the characters’ boorishness. Mileage may vary on this technique; some may be willing to watch such improvisational filmmaking for hours, others will find that it makes their own skin itch. Either way, there’s no denying that the improvisational scratching occasionally leads to something wonderful. Cassel, especially, stumbles his way into some moments that are gems, including a gleeful response to Maria, Dickie’s wife, when she finally breaks her cool facade: “Cry! That’s it, that’s life honey!”
Faces captures how an alcohol-soaked night can turn on a dime.
The handheld camera is always aware of the underlying sense of dissatisfaction experienced by these characters. It’s unsteady, rarely still—itchy. Always in search of something, it seems to find a subject and purpose when it settles on Rowlands (Cassavetes’ wife, incidentally). There is a brief moment where it adopts Jeannie’s point of view as she comes out of her room to greet a different male caller; at another point, the camera captures her sitting on a chair, framed by the black suits of two men standing in front of her, arguing (note that their heads are cut out of the frame). If the movie’s sympathies lie anywhere, it’s with Jeannie.
Rowlands also gets most of the good lines in Cassavetes’ script. “I talk too much?!” she incredulously asks the rambling Dickie when he tells her to be quiet. Later, she mumbles with genuine sadness and no irony: “I’m too old to be lovely.” The morning after, when Dickie’s affections have faded in the daylight, she asks, “How come you hate me now?” Cleaning up the breakfast he’s insulted, she tries to sing away the tear that’s snuck out and smudged her mascara. The camera sees it, however, and zooms in all the way from the next room for a close-up. Then it cuts to Dickie, who is getting dressed and reciting the silly poem they both found so funny last night. But the moment has long passed.
At first glance, Faces may seem like an archaic artifact of toxic masculinity, but moments like that—and the treatment of Jeannie overall—reveal the movie to ultimately be a work of self-critique. The film ends on a note of mutual self-loathing, as Dickie and Maria find themselves locked in a game of silent seething while sharing cigarettes on their staircase. The two stomp up and down past each other, each little gesture loaded with meaning, and for once the directionless nature of the scene feels just right. Hell may be other people, but people can also be purgatory—especially when you demand that they give you more than they’re possibly able to provide.