In 1968, John Cassavetes made a film called Faces, which would become a seminal film in his oeuvre as well as a game changer for the post ‘Hay’s Code‘ film world. Faces was a film about a middle-aged couple, played by John Marley and Lynn Carlin, who are both having affairs with younger counterparts as a way to escape the maddening doldrum of married life after so many years together. The black and white classic captures so much about the subtleties in a long, perilous relationship. It’s emotionally heavy, as well as heavy on it’s emotional close-ups. I saw the movie back in 2014 as a part of my “Film History” lecture in film school and to this date, it is still one of the most memorable educational experiences I’ve ever had. There was something really raw about the film that struck a chord with me. The way that this couple went about finding their new partners was bizarre. It wasn’t so much about what they vested in their interactions with one another, rather it was about how they could chase some idealistic fantasy. Their search leaves them broken and disappointed, but united in their experience. The film explores many themes: aging, infidelity, and the folly of the taboo romantic chase. These ideas were intriguing and pivotal to understanding human interaction. Most people would think them unique too, but in my experience, cinema has a way of doubling back on itself. These turned out to be themes I would revisit again and again throughout my film-viewing career, each time bringing me back to the quiet beauty of Faces. Which is exactly what happened to me recently while watching director Azazel Jacob’s latest film, The Lovers.
The Lovers is a new-age, low-budget, perfectly simple, indie movie. The film follows a middle-aged couple, Michael and Mary, who both have secret lovers that they see frequently to help fill the empty space in their vanilla, cul-de-sac lives. At the beginning of the film, both husband and wife have made a pact with their lovers that they are going to get a divorce soon. The only thing holding them back from pulling the trigger right away is the impending visit of their collegiate son, with whom they need to appear happy (#onlychildproblems). So they’re forced to work on this balancing act: retain the interest of their paramour, whilst maintaining the façade of a functioning relationship. As they focus on their individual affairs, something peculiar happens: they switch. One morning, they wake up and find themselves face to face with one another, this time with a bit of intrigue in their eyes. Now, they find themselves attracted to each other!
The parallels with Faces are like some of this weeks Baywatch reviews: blunt. But in both cases, it serves the audience well. We have the same set up: an aging couple? Check. The intrigue and spark of a younger partner? Check. An internal struggle over the morality of their actions? Check. Ultimately caving towards depravity? Check. But this is a new film. It’s a film made almost fifty years after the original and it carries some new thought with it. The biggest notable departure is the film’s big twist, where the Michael and Mary start to fall for each other. It’s a small change, but a noteworthy one. When Carlin and Marley leave each other in Faces, they are knowingly cutting ties with their way of life. There’s no compromise, there’s no going back. But in this scenario, Michael and Mary are forced to try and carry on with the charade of a relationship and something blossoms. The excitement that they enjoyed, the brief reprieve from the mundanity that haunts them daily, isn’t vested in their lovers, it’s in the nature of their relationships.
Michael (Tracy Letts) works for a landscaping company and enjoys a beer now and again. That’s about all we know about him for a good seventy-five percent of the film. He could be any suburban dad and that’s exactly what director Azazel Jacobs wants you to think. He’s unassuming, predictable, and fairly remiss when it comes to his family. His excitement comes entirely from his affair with a very muscular ballerina named Lucy (Melora Walters). Lucy fits the bill as a pretty standard mistress. She’s younger, she’s in great shape, she’s sexually motivated, she’s a bit emotionally unstable — and that’s really all her character needs to be. It’s exactly everything the suburban dad wants when his relationship starts to mellow out! Some mid-life crises call for cars, some call for trips, and some call for hot, younger women. All three of those options are often used as status elevators. You don’t need to see a “Rich Kids Of Instagram” post to know that. In the case of the middle-class dad, you have to take whatever luxuries you can get. So Michael enjoys Lucy, but less for what makes her Lucy and more for what makes him Michael. One telling scene has Michael come to visit Lucy at work spontaneously. She sneaks out of class and tells him that they can go sneak away to enjoy the (not) Japanese past time of what the kids call ‘hooking up‘. Only this time, Michael wants to validate their relationship by placing them in a much more traditional, domestic, context and seeing how things go. In this case, they go to the movies (because if you want to project a theme into the mind of the audience, use a meta movie theater). Much to the surprise of him (and only him), the same plain activities don’t suddenly become magical with a different person there. He calls his wife to tell her he won’t be home, but over the course of the conversation, he finds himself intrigued by the flirty nature of the conversation, ultimately leaving Lucy for Mary. Ironic. Especially because he has to lie to Lucy to cover up for the situation!
Mary isn’t doing much better. She’s gotten herself with an Irish writer, which is like asking to be depressed. This particular writer is played by Aiden Gillen, who no one in the world knows as Aiden Gillen and everyone in the world knows as Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. The good news is that in this movie, Littlefinger is the young one (yay, not going after seventeen year olds!). Anyway, she spends her days at her office job that we aren’t supposed to care much about and her nights listening to and hanging out with (but mostly listening to) this writer. They….dance together? In one scene, they do. They go to a bar once… To be honest, they don’t spend a lot of time going into the whole nitty gritty of their relationship, but the checklist remains similar nonetheless. Attractive, established, artistically inclined man with a rugged foreign accent? Check, check, checkity check. Mary benefits by the fact that part of her attraction to Littlefinger can’t really be chalked up to a mid-life crisis as it’s implied that Michael is a repeat offender when it comes to screwing her over. That being said, they both are guilty of the same crime. They’re looking for a better situation. But better how?
One of the ways they try and improve their situation is to create excitement. Simply put, these people are bored! And they aren’t the only ones. It’s a kind of understandable excuse, considering how often boredom is cited as a reason (71% for males) for cheating according to this 2011 survey. These people wan’t more from their lives and that’s an important detail. They’re not so much invested in how they’ll affect the lives of others. Humans strive for the ideal. They want to be the best possible versions of themselves. That’s why we have been running faster, studying harder, and performing better in just about every facet of life. But these trends put pressures on the average person that they just can’t meet. Kids who can’t make the right grades commit suicide, muscled-out/bikini-clad celebrities cause ordinary kids to take their insecurities to eating disorders in an attempt to fit into Bella Hadid-sized bikinis, and sad, old men attempt to woo sixteen year-old girls in an ugly attempt to freeze time. All of these features supposedly boost your value as a human being. In many cases, the easiest way to do this is through your partner. I mean look at how much power couples are worshipped in this society. The end of Brangelina was important enough, it got it’s own BBC alert. We’re so invested in celebrity relationships because they reveal something about the person’s status. Since we all can’t live in Hollyworld, many suburbanites have appropriated the side-chick culture in an attempt to extract even the tiniest taste of their lifestyle. But that’s problematic as it tends to be a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
Let’s look at another excellent film in this genre, Sarah Polley’s 2011 film, Take This Waltz. In this film, Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen star as a married couple, who run into complications when Margot (Williams) starts having feelings for the young artist (notice a trend?) who lives across the street. She and her husband seem to have a fine relationship initially, but there’s just something about this mysterious young artist that she can’t get out of her head! Maybe it’s that he’s really attractive? Or maybe he just has a better laugh? He is missing a charming accent, but it’s Canada, so what do you expect? Either way, their flirtatious chemistry is put on hold for a while as Margot continuously reminds him that she’s in a committed relationship. But she has too much damn fun with this guy to stop, so naturally, she eventually caves and leaves her doting, kind, husband for this poor-man’s Chippendale’s dancer. They have one hell of a time! She feels renewed with this guy. There’s definitely no buyers remorse….initially. But soon after the thrill and excitement of her forbidden romance comes to bloom, she (*shocker*) has some reservations. Again, she felt like there would be some added value in her life by taking a chance with a random artist, but did so for her benefit entirely. She loved the chase, but the problem is, she kind of forgot what she would be catching in the end after all.
Each of these films offers their own meditation on relationships, but they’re not really about faithfulness. They’re each a biting critique of how people value others in relation to themselves. None of the characters in Faces, or The Lovers, or Take this Waltz are really happy. They are all chasing what they think will get them there. But just like in the world of social media, the happier people are, the less they need to assure themselves (and the world) of it. Which makes sense! These people are your romantic partners, not your accessories. These days, people have learned how to use other people to get what they want. It’s kind of like… I don’t know, currency? And when they value people like such, they tend to trade them like stocks. Figuring out who can get who to achieve their own highest value seems to be a big component of the love game nowadays. It gives a whole new perspective on ‘the chase’. Because they aren’t chasing after the person of their dreams, they’re really chasing their own value.
Though each of these films plays with a familiar theme, they all take different approaches to the denouement. These films leave the audience with the same question: “What do they do from here?”. Faces leaves you with an ambiguous answer: who knows. When the couple at the end of Faces coughs together after they’re sitting on the top of the stairs, the day following their night of debauchery, they’ve become sick. Their hard-partying lifestyle has finally caught up to their biology and they’re paying the price. They’ve come to terms with their own mortality and the futility of that chase in the first place. We don’t exactly know where that leaves the duo in terms of their future, but what we do know is that what they just did failed. And how do we know this despite the complete silence? Their faces. Take This Waltz plays out a similar revelation. Once the initial luster of that hidden romance grew dull, Margot comes to feel like her situation hasn’t improved much. In her case, she’s also reprimanded by her sister (Sarah Silverman), who calls her out for giving up on poor old Seth Rogen (comedians stick up for each other). She’s also left with a big old bowl of regret and no milk to pour over it. Jim Cramer would not be proud.
Which is where we come to The Lovers. Michael and Mary were perfectly situated to continue falling back in love with each other, much to the pleasant surprise of their son. But there needs to be some shakeup in order to stir some kind of interest. So who else but Littlefinger to come and ruin a perfectly good thing? Okay, Lucy does her part too, but it’s much more in character for Petyr Baelish. Both of the paramours get sick of waiting and essentially instigate a conversation between our couple which culminates in the quiet, but emotional climax. Without spoiling everything (but still spoiling the ending), I’ll only say that Michael and Mary do appear to choose separate paths in the end. They chased, they caught, and are left with few (maybe no) regrets. But not without leaving the audience a shadow of doubt. As they leave their new partners, they share an exchange, hinting at the possibility of a future. In the end, they were in love with the chase. Perhaps because of this, they might be able to break that value-driven chain.
One of the things I appreciated most about the film is that The Lovers keeps it simple. It doesn’t have to overcomplicate things with extraneous, undeveloped characters or superfluous dialogue. Sometimes, these low-budget films can start to feel like they’re trying a bit too hard. Look at Mike Cahill’s I Origins (2011). It’s attempting to capture the heftiness of Inception, with one percent of it’s budget. The Lovers sets a simple goal and accomplishes it. It develops themes touched on in past films like Faces and expands upon them in nuanced ways. There’s no major ‘Eureka!’ moment. There’s no unnecessary twists. But there is a well-orchestrated meditation on human value and the chase to increase ones own. If The Lovers added anything to the discourse discussed, it was that the cycle of the chase is one that can be broken. Every choice we make is a reflection of our own character. These films are meant to appeal to a very human interaction: romance. But Jacob’s film has left audiences with the burning question: is it a romance with another person? Or one with an idealized self? The true answer lies hidden underneath the face.