Lots of Peculiar Features, Emotions in Posen's 'Face of Love'

Directed by: Arie Posen; Runtime: 92 minutes
Grade: C

The Face of Love is the kind of drama that demands sympathy -- or, at the very least, considerate curiosity -- for the central character and the story's conceit if it's going to be watched. If someone goes into Arie Posin's mild psychological romance thinking that a widow's out of her mind for wanting to pursue a man who looks and sounds exactly like her husband, then the things she ends up doing aren't really going to convince anyone otherwise. Unfortunately, that's not the first hurdle that the audience must cross to grasp its obscured musings about grieving and attraction only to one's spouse, where the threshold separating fond remembrance and poorly thought-out recreation of experiences gets repeatedly crossed in a deadly-serious environment. Despite the unsurprising genuineness of the cast as they operate around the macabre enormity of the subject matter, The Face of Love's exaggerated treatment of a widow's anguished obsession undermines that authenticity.

Annette Bening plays the widow, Nikki, who lost her architect husband, Garrett, in a drowning incident while vacationing in Mexico. In the five years after, she's focused on her work as an interior decorator for vacant real estate in Los Angeles, never remarrying or letting go of her devotion to her husband -- to a degree where she nearly hallucinates his presence during everyday activities. She maintains a relationship with her Seattle-stationed daughter (Jess Weixler) who visits frequently, as well as with her next-door neighbor, Roger (a modest but reputable performance from Robin Williams), a widower himself who was also a friend of Garret's. On a whim, Nikki decides to visit the local art museum where she and Garrett would frequent, only she's shocked to spot a man who, for all intents and purposes, is her husband in appearance. She becomes transfixed with finding the man instead of shrugging it off, eventually leading to a relationship between them where Tom (Ed Harris), an artist and college instructor, remains unaware of his resemblance to her husband.

While it's clear that Nikki stands on shaky emotional ground as she pursues Tom following their first encounter, The Face of Love builds some interest in how she'll actually cope with the situation once she's made direct contact with her husband's doppelganger. Director Posin touches on the disarming nature of what it'd be like to essentially see the tangible ghost of one's spouse and the boundaries Nikki's forced to cross in order to further their interaction, especially how she grasps Tom's distinct personality and life experiences while still maintaining her illusion. The ways that Tom avoids discovering what Nikki's orchestrated are questionable -- partial internet searches, overlooked photographs, avoiding Nikki's neighbors in public -- but the psychology of her falling for someone else living in her husband's skin initially becomes enough to surrender to some of the story's whims, bolstered by Posin's steady and intimately expressive filmmaking. The potential for a unique character study emerges in her pursuit, namely in how she'll balance her past and present if things work out.

That is, until Nikki starts to push the boundaries of reliving her experiences with Garrett to literal and self-indulgent levels, hinged on some incredibly reckless choices she makes to feed her longing. Instead of a levelheaded assessment of how a person might handle her new lover's physical similarities to her deceased husband, The Face of Love opts for an overstated look at the emotional perils of an unbalanced woman flirting with calamity by dining at restaurants, trying on specific clothing, even traveling to a favorite vacation spot associated with the past. The drama meanders in wacky, doubtful directions for the sake of Nikki's self-deception, abandoning points that the film might make about singular tastes in romantic partners -- or how someone might break free from that singular focus -- for an exploration of her dishonesty and refusal to move on. Shades of Hitchcock's Vertigo appear in Nikki's nostalgic psychological turmoil, but it's like experiencing Scottie's fixation on the past without the backbone of an underlying mystery or the subtlety of earnest drama.

What ultimately drives The Face of Love beyond this point boils down to observing how high Nikki's able to stack her melancholy house of cards before they come tumbling down, whether she'll be discovered by someone close to her or if she'll reveal the truth on her own accord. Despite Annette Bening's ability to earn compassion amid her character's unbecoming actions, while generating complex energy with Ed Harris' stern yet sympathetic projection of Tom's artistic soul, she's only able to invigorate Nikki's psychosis so much within the space of the film's unsatisfying emotional tempo. While there's an elevation of drama at the end, it's for erroneous reasons that tap into unnecessary divergences in its themes of mortality and stunted catharsis after the death of a loved one. A more thoughtful meditation on this idea exists somewhere within Posin's film, coupled with the fleeting zest for life and the right and wrong ways to mourn, but that's not really what shores up here.

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