Complete realism is a risky idea when making a film. Film-going is and always has been an escape from reality, so injecting your film so full of it is counter to what the audience wants. This doesn’t mean realistic films are bad; it just means they may not be remembered by general audiences as fondly as something that is a bit more fantastical. John Cassavetes’ Faces is a film not many will remember fondly. You want good times and happy endings? You’ve come to the wrong movie.
Faces is the relentless story of the crumbling marriage of Richard and Maria Forst. Richard (John Marley) has gotten particularly close with prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), and it’s led him to ask for a divorce from his wife (Lynn Carlin). Despite some moments of sincerity, there never really feels like any love has been lost between the two. Don’t bother trying to find a character to “like” and identify with. You’ll never really find one, other than maybe Jeannie. Everyone talks constantly, but whether those words are profound or pointless is subjective to the listener. Conversations and moods change as frequently and unexpectedly as the placement of the camera. General popcorn-movie audiences will not have any patience for this, and I can’t say I blame them.
Faces moves at a glacial pace and is almost impossible to commit to in a single sitting. The primary reason the film has endured for decades is the unflinching realism in depicting interpersonal relationships. In 1968, not far removed from the demise of the Hollywood Production Code, a movie like Faces would really rock people’s worlds. But viewing the film in 2012, you just can’t help but notice how dated this style of filmmaking is. What was groundbreaking back then is boring now.
Don’t bother looking for dazzling visuals either. Faces was shot on 16 mm, black & white film, and it’s got the graininess to prove it. Cassavetes is less interested in making you feel like you’re watching a movie and more about making you feel like you’re watching real human beings. This guerrilla-style camerawork lends a raw, documentary tone comparable to peeking through someone’s window and peering into his life. This is the greatest strength of the film — and also its undoing. Many moments of union and dissolution are captured masterfully by this frantic technique, but since it is used throughout the film without rest, it becomes distracting. Scenes drag for far too long after making their point simply because of the dedication to the style. We get it, Cassavetes, the real world is cruel and people suck and everything is gritty and whatever. But your point will be appreciated by many more if you make a film that is accessible to them. Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the choir.
I compare Faces to the recent film Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. That film is also a brutal look at a failing marriage, but there were still a handful of sweet, tender moments for audiences to eat up. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance intercut scenes of the central couple falling in love between the scenes of them falling apart, and it didn’t make the film any less impactful. In fact, it made it even more heartbreaking and allowed a greater audience to understand its message. Nobody walked away from Blue Valentine happy, yet you didn’t feel as though you wasted two hours of your life. Cassavetes was unyielding in his approach to this material, not allowing any joy to enter the audience in any way. Because… realism?
Still, to give credit where it’s due, Faces should be applauded for how accurately it captures the changeable nature of people, even from sentence to sentence. We’ve all been in a situation where a single ill-intended phrase or even a mere gloomy thought has altered our mood drastically, and Faces shows us that with hyperrealism. If you try to watch this film all at once, you may lose your mind. I recommend giving yourself breaks every 15 minutes or so, for as long as you need. Watch 15 minutes, absorb it, and then when you feel you’re ready, move on. In my own personal experience, this is the only way to make it through Faces without wanting to drill a hole through your head.
My rating: (5/10)