Honest portrayals of American life on the big screen are few and far between. For every Killer of Sheep, there are a hundred more exploitative, facile breakdowns of society, gender, and race that perpetuate stereotypes more than they truly examine issues. Even when one does come along that appears to at least approximate life as we know it, these rare breeds typically come with a couched sociopolitical messages. Strange indeed is the film that just tries to be.
Of course, it is ironically those pictures that have more to say about life in both personal and public terms than those that try to encapsulate it. John Cassavetes' Faces is such a film. A subtle yet unflinching and harrowing look into the relationships between a group of men and women, Faces manages to get to the brutal truth not only of these couples but American society's inability to endow its people with a sense of fulfillment. Instead, we find ourselves locked into mores that are not that far removed from Victorian propriety.
Though the film employs a number of supporting characters almost as important as the leads themselves, the action centers around the slow crumbling of the 14-year long marriage between Richard and Maria Forst. The film opens with an extended dinner conversation between the Forsts and their friends, during which the tension of the couple rises to the surface in an increasingly hostile (yet still overly "friendly" chat). They all go our for drinks, the couple returns home and Richard proposes a divorce in one of the most casually vicious conversations I've ever seen.
The rest of the film follows the two as they each deal with the proposition in their own ways. Richard, sex-hungry and (in his mind, at least) emasculated, heads out with his businessmen friends, who promptly pick up some prostitutes. Richard gravitates towards Jeannie (played by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes' wife), who in any other movie would be the hooker with a heart of gold but here has her own set of flaws and pettiness. Richard's attempts to woo her reveal a bit of gentleness in the otherwise hardened old man. He manages to disperse his two coarse buddies by mercilessly shutting down their racist jokes to establish himself as morally superior. With them out of the picture, you can see him slowly let down his guard for this total stranger. In Jeannie Richard finds a sort of liberation, perhaps a closeted reference to the sexual revolution that defined the time period.
Meanwhile, Maria goes out with her own friends to a local club, where they bemoan how they stand out amongst the younger women. They somehow rope a young gigolo named Chet and bring him back to the house. All the women flirt with Chet, but he sets his sights on Maria when she shyly shows an interest and the two wind up in bed together. That night Maria finally experiences real joy in her life, but the next morning is guilt-ridden and attempts suicide.
These two separate arcs go beyond an exploration of relationships and into a dissection of the fundamental differences between men and women. Even in the opening segment, the men clearly compete with one another for attention. Later, Richard engages in a sort of contest with his two friends in order to "win" Jeannie. For the men, it's all about the competition to get women; once you've bagged a lady there's no thrill left.
The women, on the other hand, deal with this harsh reality by martyring themselves. They go clubbing to forget their troubles, yet all they can do is talk about how old they look. Where Richard views his tryst with Jeannie as a triumph and a moment of clarity, Maria treats hers as a great transgression (which, to be fair, it is); however, she feels this way not out of remorse to her husband but because she's violated a societal code. Cassavetes clearly shows that, while it's a man's world, society's psychological impact on women has made many incapable of doing anything about it.
People could call the ending bleak, because it is. After all this frivolity, Richard and Maria settle back into their pathetic relationship, even though both have been changed by the experience. It's Cassavetes' final, savage blow to the audience, stating that the best we can hope for in this society is the simple realization that we're unhappy.
Faces works with any audience because the American ideal has become the romanticized template for social progress. Yet Cassavetes exposes the flaws of our system of aggressive individuality; the men must compete because every man must get ahead. It's all about the paycheck and the family unit. The women must "know their place" and loathe themselves after they reach 30 because by now they've been "won" and exhausted their "usefulness." The drive for personal wealth and success resulted in a society of sexism and self-defeat.
The title conveys a lot about the film and its meanings in only five letters. Pretty much all of film takes place in close-ups of talking heads, in which superficial people spit out their wearisome, worthless chat. But these words are also a face, a mask with which to disguise their deep regret and unfulfillment. Faces plays like a brazen mixture of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage and Jean Renoir's Rule of the Game, a searing look into relationships as well as a merciless commentary of a society on the edge of disappearing up its own rear. While it's not as good at exploring these separate topics as those other two, the fact that it manages to blend both elements seamlessly puts in right in their league. Make no mistake, Faces, like Cassavetes himself, should be regarded as a landmark of American cinema.