Faces (Cassavetes, 1968)


In Sunset Blvd., Norma Desmond muses on the advent of sound saying “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”. It was both a tribute to the star system, when Garbo or Gish commanded audiences with little more than a slight movement of the eye. Those were the days where actors had all the power, at least as long as the audiences loved them. John Cassavetes feature debut, Faces (1968), seems to explore this idea. The yearning and desire for love, and the art of acting. This film is not about Hollywood, though it easily could be, the posturing and the acting of everyday life are at the forefront diverting attention from the real life people hiding beneath. As one imagines an actor performing as an expressed desire of wanting to be loved, one can understand the characters in Faces as doing the very same. Instead of trying to please an audience they are working on individuals. Pleasing one man at a time, or one woman. Though the exterior is meant to appease to as many people as possible, the focus is very individual and the results always fleeting.

The psychological and emotional torment presented in Faces, is the idea that we can never be happy, because we cannot allow ourselves to be. Since we’re all walking around, pretending and hiding, we are afraid to be vulnerable with someone else. The characters are able to grasp onto that happiness, if only for a moment, only to retreat back into their darkness… because the comfort of loneliness outweighs the potential for heartbreak. Discussing the film last night with a friend of mine, I think he summed up the characters desires and wants more accurately and briefly than I could ever, so in his words;

When Jeannie allows Dickie to stay over, she toys with the idea of actually being loved, and we see this when she makes him breakfast. But, she’s terrible at it.

When Dickie opens his soul to Jeannie, but the next morning he is back to being the cold prick that he truly is.

When Maria sleeps with Chet, she gives into her cravings and inhibitions. But, she is guilt stricken, and tries to kill herself, and by the end she is still the dull housewife.

And Chet, saves Maria’s life, and opens up to her, and basically tells her how unhappy he is, and then rests his head in her lap like a vulnerable child. But he ends up hopping out the window, like the transparent party boy he is.

It seems obvious when said allowed, but the film is so startling and immediate that the simplicity of the story and the characters’ desires are overshadowed by their play acting. The film is appropriately titled as we’re often allowed long close-ups of the characters faces. They really accentuate already strong performances, revealing the masks that these people are wearing. We watch Gena Rowlands laugh and smile, and then we see a crack. A brief moment where she seems to pull her smile a bit, force it, because though laughing and singing, she’s broken inside. The most startling images though are of Lynn Carlin’s face as she’s washed away by the cold shower. All her make-up gone, and her hair flat and wet, she is startling beautiful… and incredibly vulnerable. The affectations she bears around everyone else disappear, as she is left with absolutely nothing but her life. It’s a moment of complete and utter dependability and vulnerability, one that she could never have wilfully consented to.

This was my first Cassavetes film, and I think I’ll be checking out more of his work. I have to say, it probably won’t be too soon, just because it’s so emotionally draining.

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