John Cassavetes' Faces hurls you into a nightmare of ordinary life and doesn't let you out until you've experienced all its fleeting joys and lasting pains. With its stark, neorealist visual scheme and mercilessly in-the-action camerawork, the film depicts a married couple's last, desperate grasps at a life that's slipping by. Considering how compelling and full of energy the film plays now, I can only imagine watching it in 1968, without background from the independent film movement that Cassavetes sparked or the stylistic ambitions of the 1970s Hollywood.
Faces marked Cassavetes' second independent film, following a stint in Hollywood after his landmark writing and directing debut, 1959's "Shadows." Nine years later, his focus was no longer on young adults, but middle-aged businessmen and their wives. A couple played by John Marley and Lynn Carlin serves as the center-point for a collection of characters.
While the film runs more than two hours, it tells a small story that consists primarily of five lengthy sequences, two of which linger in one locale for about half an hour. The scenes delve into long, often shrill conversations between characters who are both unhappy and in mental states heightened enough for their battered emotions show through.
After a brief interlude depicting Richard's (Marley) boring job, the film immediately enters a one of these high-strung scenarios. Richard and his friend Freddie (Fred Draper) leave a bar with the younger Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) to party in her apartment. The two men laugh and yap, vying for the young lady's attention with drunken pleas for attention. Draper in particular grows increasingly hostile as verges on the brink of an angry explosion. A later scene, in which Richard eventually interrupts a visit between Jeannie and two other men, sees those two men echo the same mentality.
Richard's wife Maria (Carlin) eventually has her own night out with several of her friends and a relentlessly charismatic gigolo (Seymour Cassel), allowing a female version of the setup to play out.
At times, for both the men and the women, the moments of emotionally vulnerable pettiness feel a bit too convenient when they should be more repressed. But the characters are so fascinating as they struggle through their lives that it's impossible not to watch. The stakes, are generally purely emotional, but are still incredibly high, as we come to see. The run-time flies by quite quickly because each scene is so completely engaging that its length isn't immediately apparent. Faces remains a singular experience, and one that all film-lovers should have at least once.
Criterion earns full points for capturing the look and texture of the three different 16-mm stocks used to shoot the film. As elaborated on in some of the special features, the film is largely shot on high-grain film, and it was important that the look be maintained so as to distinguish it from sine if the less-grainy footage in certain key scenes. The spirit and circumstances of the production obviously mean that the image isn't exactly pristine (at a couple points, hair can be seen caught in the camera's gate), but Criterion's preservation of it, warts and all, certainly is.
The heavy grain that permeates most of the film might have created an obstacle during compression, but you wouldn't know it to look at the crisp image, free of artifacts and as accurate as any standard-definition release could be in its depiction of grain patterns.
The sound isn't always perfectly in synch either, due to a problem from the shoot. Members of the crew explain issue further in one of Criterion's supplements, and part of the French documentary on the disc actual features an interview with Cassavetes during the laborious process of synching the non-synched film and sound.
The real find of the collection is the first 17-minutes of a longer, early version of the film that was shown to preview audiences. The differences are quite dramatic. While the entire portrayal of married life takes place in one sequence in the final cut, this version opens with a scene from the middle of that section, in which Richard lies in bed with Maria, cracking bad jokes. We also see the full scene in the bar where Richard meets Jeannie, as opposed to the glimpse of it that the final cut uses to segue to the apartment scene. While the Criterion menu assures us that these 17 minutes are the most dramatically different part of the cut, it would have been nice if the whole thing--or at least any other deleted scenes--had been included.
Making "Faces" includes interviews with Rowlands, Cassel, Carlin and Ruban about the production process, sharing stories about both the production and post-production process.
Another highlight is the hour-long episode of the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, devoted entirely to two interviews with Cassavetes--one in Paris, the other in Hollywood during Faces' post-production. The show is the kind of refreshing, laid-back documentary that you rarely find on TV, and displays Cassavetes excitement about his cinematic experiments.
(On a side note, Cinéastes de notre temps also includes mention of the earlier version of Shadows, which Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney rediscovered, but which Cassavetes' widow Rolands doesn't want released. (Carney made some noise after Criterion didn't credit him as an advisor on the set due to his feud with Rolands.) The interview seems to support Carney's argument that Cassavetes didn't mind if people viewed the original Shadows, but of course his opinion could have changed in the years since.)