John Cassavetes' Faces is a series of dramatically linked episodes, centered around Richard (John Marley) and his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin), and their lovers, Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) and Chet (Seymour Cassel), each episode taking the plot in an unexpected direction. Richard and Maria have been married fourteen years and they are both bored, oppressed by the monotonous progression of their relationship, eventually seeking something not clearly defined (pleasure? intimacy? security?) with other lovers after Richard suddenly announces that he wants a divorce. The ubiquitous use of close-ups and a somewhat shaky cinema-verite style pull the viewer into the film, often in uncomfortable or even disturbing ways, even though reality television has accustomed us to being an intrusive viewer. Cassavetes invites us to enter ever more deeply into the slowly accumulating misery of his characters' lives, offering no respite or possibility of relief. Marriage, love, sex, aging, self-expression - these are the themes on which Cassavetes refuses to shine any optimism, however remote.
For a feminist, the film's primary attraction is its dissection of the
very marital conditions and double standards that prompted Betty Friedan
to write The Feminist Mystique. While Richard has a promising
career and already feels entitled to his boys' nights out with
prostitutes before asking for a divorce, Maria cooks, cleans, and
discusses marital problems on the telephone. Richard feels entitled to
more - more women, more nights out, more fun. Maria wants something,
whatever it might turn out to be, that she can't have if she stays with
The black and white cinematography reflects the cinema-verite style of
the film, but its grainy texture and less than crisp delineations are at
times dizzying, almost as though one were watching a video of the
projected film, rather than a clean print. The music is understated, but it effectively dramatizes the turbulent undercurrents of emotion carrying the film forward.
Undoubtedly, the film requires a lot of patience and a rather thick skin. Like Richard and Maria's marriage (and pretty much everything else in their lives), most scenes seem to take just a little too long, which is perhaps intentional, but nevertheless wearing. In fact, the film's success is precisely what makes it so very tiring. Its portrayal of boredom is so viscerally accurate that the audience shares the boredom. An impressive artistic achievement, but a doubtful asset in a film that runs over two hours.