Martha: We take our tears, and we put ‘em in the icebox, in the goddamn ice trays. Until they’re frozen….and then we put them in our drinks.
—-from Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee.
Six years after Albee’s play was in theaters and two years after the Mike Nichols directed filmed version came out, John Cassavetes released Faces, a movie with such similar themes and tones you wouldn’t be crazy to consider it an adaptation. That’s not to say it’s ripping the play off, quite the contrary. The filmed version of Virginia Woolf feels very much like Albee’s play, with great dialogue and incredible acting…but it doesn’t feel real. That’s not to say that “realism” is equivalent with quality and the filmed adaptation is remarkable in how it stays true to the play without feeling stagy or stale. But Faces is like Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s bleaker cousin, stripped down to the barest bones possible. Here, the fading marriages and dashed hopes don’t even have an elaborate lie to pin their sorrows on. The lie is their lives. Even the film itself is presented as fake; we’re treated to an extended prologue that sets up the movie we’re about to see, with the same actors presenting studio executives to remind us that everything on screen is as make-believe as the happiness we somehow manage to convince ourselves exists of on a daily basis.
The first real scene in Faces involves three characters shrieking with delight and acting generally like drunken goofs. It’s the type of moment where you realize you are completely removed from, and yet you understand completely what they’ve been up to and how they’ve arrived there. They’ve had a good night, shared many drinks as well as laughs, and now they’re ending their evening acting like they don’t want their buzzes or the good cheer brought on by the booze to wear off. So they crack jokes, sing song, dance, and come off generally as obnoxious. We’ve all been there, and what’s brilliant about this sequence is that it’s alienating and inviting at the same time. While the shrieking laughter and inside jokes hold us at a distance, the sad emotional truth behind the whole charade rings true. As the whole scene develops, it goes from being silly to deadly serious with just one line (“How much do I owe you?”) the cuts right to the heart of the matter; this is fake, this is temporary, and after all is said and done, the only thing we’re left with are the lies we convince ourselves are real.