Faces follows a married couple, Dickie and Maria, as they experience a night away from each other. Though the film came out in ‘68, it was shot in early ‘65 and subsequently edited until its release. In other words, Faces is a product of the Sixties, it is not exclusively from the vantage point of ‘68 but a project that was continually constructed during nearly half of the decade. However, Diane Jacobs comments that these characters "might just as well have been living in the previous century." Similarly, Richard Brody (of The New Yorker) says the film’s “characters are conspicuously, aggressively pre-modern; they are people from an age when the entertainment world hadn’t yet filled their domestic space or their imaginations.” This perceived antique nature of the film illustrates the middle-class malaise as a deeply routed problem of the American family, and the maddening confusion and claustrophobia they exude is a reflection of a filmmaker embittered by and unsatisfied with a regimented studio system more interested in ideal love as something attainable.
The critical discourse surrounding the film's theatrical opening consistently recognizes the class issues of the film. Pauline Kael said the film is “about the meaningless of life for the well-heeled middle-aged,” and Faces’ “deliberately raw material is about affluence and apathy, the importance of sex, and the miseries of marriage." Oddly, Stanley Kauffmann also describes the couple as “middle-aged” and “well-heeled;” he continues saying the film’s theme is “America’s frustrations, sexual and spiritual, their sublimations and palliatives.”Film Quarterly writer, Claire Clouzot said director John Cassavetes had extracted Faces’ “fatigued adults” from the background of the “Youth Era” of film to “[stigmatize] the middle-aged upper-middle-class couple.” Referencing The Graduate, she states, “Benjamin’s mother and father have become the heroes of Faces.” Clouzot continues claiming no one could get excited about these “two sample middle-agers.”
The idea that Cassavetes chose to involve his film with subjects no one could get excited about is fascinating. The films that ushered in the New Hollywood era (i.e. Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider) placed interesting and exciting characters at their forefront. However, Cassavetes was interested in the “egos of the unremarkable” instead of the spontaneous maverick or rebel. This contrast magnifies the director’s opposition to every facet of Hollywood, even the rebellious phase of the late ‘60s.
Cassavetes’ choice also increases the sense of restriction in the film. He commented that the film’s undeniable middle-age paradigm (as opposed to the youth oriented projects he had since directed) affords the film a fundamentally restrictive nature: "to reveal middle age in all its complexities...and frustration, [Faces] must be more rigid." Within this paradigm, Cassavetes portrays how they try to temporarily escape from their ultimately inescapable situation. In this film, the American marriage is deconstructed, and the "viability of the nuclear family is seriously challenged."
The characters spend most of the night drunk in suburban homes, usually not their own. They dance and joke and scream and laugh almost incessantly no matter what they’re discussing. This laughter becomes an important aspect of the character’s interpersonal relationships. Raymond Carney states the “characters' expressions are confused because they are confused." In this sense, laughter is the most accessible mode for talking out their confusion. In other words, the characters’ self-expression has become "socially mediated" and "emotionally compromised" by relationships, and laughing has become a way to comfort or pad the tension between them. At the center of all of Faces’ relationships is an “inability to express;” an inarticulacy that has been lubricated by drunken laughter. For instance, when two men at Jeannie's (Gena Rowlands) share this exchange:
"How'd we get into this?"
"How'd we get into it? How the hell do we get out of it?"
The poignancy of this exchange is how the two drown out the seriousness of such questions with their confused laughter. This type of exchange also displays how Cassavetes “bring[s] forward the vague and the inarticulate in human awareness." They are aware of their existence within the confines of being middle-aged and middle-class, but they don’t acquire what it takes to escape.
Dickie goes home and argues with his wife, Maria. Again, their more hurtful and truthful comments towards each other are undercut, mediated by strange laughter. However, most of the film’s literary and critical discourses mention the moment when the laughter stops. Dickie declares for a divorce. In a film of inarticulacy, when he says "I want a divorce," he couldn't be more articulate. He feels trapped in the relationship, and instead of expressing it by complaining about their dinner routine, or not having any cigarettes in the house, or being sexually unsatisfied--something Carney would call "the hidden confusions in [his] consciousness"--he simply and boldly says he wants out.
Carney goes on, in his article “The Adventure of Insecurity,” to describe the director’s films in a way that sheds light on Dickie’s moment of articulacy. He says, “even the most important scenes and relationships in Cassavetes' work may seem to 'get nowhere,' because in Cassavetes' imaginative universe there is really nowhere to get." Dickie and Maria clearly hate each other, but what Cassavetes saw in the sought after American marriage, such as theirs, is a mutual contempt between men and women who had nowhere else to get. So instead, (as Jacobs describes it) “they pace and vomit.” Critic Stuart Klawans (in his write up for The Criterion Collection) echoes Carney's "get[ting] nowhere" sentiment when he calls Faces "a movie of scenes that never end, populated by characters who feel they can’t go on." Of course, the poignancy is that Dickie and Maria must go on.
Though Cassavetes’ universe is without reprieve, and some have even suggested without hope, they do search for moments of transcending their prosaic home life. Dickie and Maria both engage in brief extramarital relationships, because it affords them a place to dream of “ideal love, freedom, adventure, or self-expression.” Just as hanging out with friends affords the men an opportunity to reminisce about their bachelorized freedom: “remember when we didn't have to worry about our wives and kids?" one of them quips. To which Dickie responds: “All we ask for is peace.”
The man Maria ends up having an affair with, Chet, is a twenty-three year old heartthrob. He is a sex symbol for Maria and her friends, and an opportunity to dance with him is what Chet would describe as a “release.” The long scene in which he entertains each of the four women holds one of the film’s most telling moments. Florence, Maria’s friend, is the most enthusiastic to have Chet’s attention. More than the others, she exudes a desire to have a transaction that doesn’t resemble her presumably prosaic and predictable existence. She demands that Chet kiss her, and he does, ever so slightly. What follows is a pregnant silence. It is apparent in this brief silence that Florence’s sense of relief is quickly obscured by the inundated realization of the inability to “transcend one’s way out of the labyrinth of diurnal reality.” Florence’s “release” is absolutely momentary.
The woman Dickie ends up sleeping with, Jeannie (played by Cassavetes’ wife, Rowlands), offers him a sexual release as well. However, he also seems to be able to enact a strange return to childhood. When Jeannie asks Dickie why he wanted to see her, he replies, “I wanted to play with you.” Like a child, he wants to escape home to “play.” His response lacks the articulacy of an adult; he cannot speak of sex frankly. Dickie is a primary example of the Cassavetes characters Jacobs describes as an “atrophied little man” who is “unwilling… to mature.”
Just as his scenes seem to get nowhere and his characters have nowhere to go, Cassavetes’ mise-en-scene offers nowhere to go. In Faces, there is a distinct lack of negative space; his “myopic lens denies man the option of either escape or of metaphysical redemption." The frames are filled with the titular faces of ubiquitous frustration, and the majority of the film takes place in doors. By the end of the film, the houses give off an intentional claustrophobia meant to physically suggest the mental captivity of American suburbia. The stairwell that centers the film’s last frame has a certain amount of terror to it. It metaphorically resembles no exit, just a passage to different levels of the same hell.
Carney calls Cassavetes’ films "transactions between individuals in transit, that admits the full range of confusion, clutter, and mess that riddles our dreams, and that achingly captures the yearnings and frustrations of the American experience." This aptly describes Faces’ in particular. At the end of the film, it is apparent these characters are in transit, but in unique ways. Jeannie and Chet exemplify transactions in passing; they offer a respite, though a respite full of confusion that riddles the characters' idealistic love. Dickie and Maria are in transit among each other, as we leave them, they exist in the same house, passing each other on the aforementioned stairwell to go their separate ways. "Cassavetes intensifies the isolation of each character by cutting from one to the other." By doing so, he “captur[es] a terrifying mutual uncertainty that underlies half a lifetime of intimacy." In Cassavetes' mind, they offer an exposé of the American middle-class dream: rotten, hateful, inarticulate, confused, and together.
Not much has been made of the very opening of the film: Dickie enters a viewing room and is greeted by women offering him a cigarette and a drink. Everyone soon takes a seat to watch a film, and then the Faces title card appears, and now we’ve entered Cassavetes’ film. Strangely, there is no return or even reference to this scene again. I can only infer that the characters as we come to know them are stuck in this film, and coming back to that scene would have been too conclusive for this film. Instead, the viewer is appropriately left to feel without an easy exit.
The above was part of a larger paper (hopefully it didn't feel too much like it) and I tried to insert some citations where I thought it wouldn't feel too clunky, but there's still some without in-text citations for the sake of readability. So, below is a list of books that were cited from:
Hollywood Renaissance by Diane Jacobs
"The Adventure of Insecurity: The Films of John Cassavetes" by Raymond Carney
American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes by Raymond Carney
Filmmakers In Conversation, citation from John Cassavetes' interview