If each of us only ever gets to find one face of true love, then Nikki (Annette Bening) is arguably one exceptionally lucky lover. The Face of Love begins with Nikki and Garrett (Ed Harris), her husband of 30 years, on a Mexican holiday that ends in tragedy when Garrett gets stoned and perishes in the sea. Fast-forward a few years and Nikki meets Tom (also Ed Harris), a gardener and painter who’s a stone-cold dead ringer for her dead husband, not to mention quite a lovely guy. Tom looks just like Garrett, laughs just like Garrett, makes love to her just like Garrett. And get this: Garrett collected paintings; Tom makes paintings! Might seem creepy, but Nikki’s hooked.
What’s the story here? Is fate playing some kind of sick trick on our grief-stricken heroine? (A winking glimpse of the poster for Vertigo in one scene suggests as much.) Is this doppelgänger-lover a metaphor for projection prompted by ardour? Is Tom a ghost of some kind? Is Nikki going bananas? Is there some ultra-cryptic clue nestled in the fact that Garrett designed houses while Nikki stages them for a living? Beats me. But I wouldn’t advise you to invest too much time in trying to parse out the metaphysics of director Arie Posin’s second feature, which strongly echoes the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski—not to mention Jonathan Glazer’s Birth—but boasts little of their wisdom, ingenuity or esthetic rigour. Thanks mainly to the efforts of the truly wonderful pairing of Bening and Harris, The Face of Love is much stronger on generating feeling than lasting intrigue, wonder or sense.
A telling snippet of dialogue: “What are we doing?” “Making new memories.” To give the film some credit, there is something a little laudable, I think, about its ways of evading mere wish-fulfilment fantasy. Something’s always a little off in Nikki and Garrett’s exchanges—and I’m not just referring to the occasionally appalling bits of exposition. Tom makes Nikki feel alive for the first time in years, but he also seems to be hiding something from her. Meanwhile, Nikki’s got to hide Tom, from her daughter, and from the nice neighbour played by, get this, Robin Williams (!), who’s always had a crush on Nikki.
Something in The Face of Love’s basic ingredients feels like it might have made for a pretty good melodrama or so-called women’s picture from the ’50s—indeed, Bening’s emotionally textured performance at times recalls Jane Wyman or Joan Bennett. But what we get instead is something too soft in both the head and the heart, New Agey without quite committing to its mystical mire. Still, there’s a core element in this story and in Bening’s embodiment of longing for love’s resurrection that I refuse to write off. Much here is dumb, yes, but I’m nevertheless rather touched by this. Am I going bananas? Am I, like Nikki, just falling victim to my own projection?
Directed by Arie Posin