(John Cassavetes, USA, 1968)


Laughter, because it is so hard to act, is invariably phoney on screen. But in Faces, every kind of laughter – lunatic, lusty, nervous, hysterical, defensive – is rendered with absolute authenticity, even when pre-scripted or post-synchronised.

What was John Cassavetes' secret? His rapport with actors was so total, his work with them so intensely detailed, that he was able to capture lived reality – especially on the interpersonal plane – like no other director. Less well recognised is Cassavetes' complementary and no less radical achievement: his mastery of a fractured cinematic syntax of staging, montage and sound design to vividly render every emotional and behavioural vibration.

After the experiment of Shadows (1959) and his bad experiences within the Hollywood system, Faces confidently marked the beginning of the Cassavetes 'signature'. Filmed in his home, it records vivid clinches in the lives of people who are at once hopelessly yearning and furiously alienated – stranded, like all Cassavetes characters, between the difficult responsibilities of day life and the reckless intoxications of night life.

Cassavetes shows his brilliant ensemble cast – John Marley and Lynn Carlin are especially memorable – always in media res, their bodies off-centre in the frame, their words and gestures truncated by the editing. Each scene is based on an unpredictable and often terrifying 'turn' – a sudden change in a character's mood or manner towards another.

Faces invents a new way of experiencing time in cinema, where sudden pauses register as (in Cassavetes' words) "like stepping off a fast train".

Sometimes taken as the condemnation of a soulless, materialist middle class, it is, rather, a painfully intimate and compassionate account of everyday suffering. Cassavetes stakes out the terrain he would often revisit – marital crisis, casual sex, hedonistic abandon, family ties – within a narrative that constantly shuffles and compares its characters' trajectories through a long night and its aftermath.

Is this the first film in cinema history where characters talk (indeed, laugh themselves stupid) about cunnilingus? Thirty-five years later, directors including Neil LaBute and Lars von Trier are still trying to catch up to Cassavetes' astonishing ability to show the messy complexity of adult relationships.

MORE Cassavetes: Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, Too Late Blues

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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