Dancing delicately around a morbid secret that threatens their characters’ relationship yet also sets it in motion, Annette Bening and Ed Harris bring a potent sense of conviction to director Arie Posin’s maudlin but strangely compelling psychological love story, “The Face of Love.” The sort of achingly sincere romantic drama that would have fit snugly alongside the classic women’s pictures of the 1930s and ’40s, this tale of a still-grieving widow (Bening) hypnotized by a dead ringer for her late husband verges on ludicrous, but ultimately succeeds at conveying one person’s complicated yet emotionally rational response to a highly irrational situation. A name cast should make this IFC pickup an attractive proposition for older audiences in specialty release and VOD play.
The script (by Posin and Matthew McDuffie) is initially cluttered by an excess of flashbacks recalling the perfect marriage of Los Angeles couple Nikki (Bening) and Garrett (Harris), whose happy union of 30 years ended tragically when Garrett drowned while the two were on vacation. Five years later, Nikki still hasn’t fully recovered from her loss or brought herself to begin dating again; she drifts through life with a pleasant demeanor but a despondent spirit, staving off loneliness through her close relationship with her daughter, Summer (Jess Weixler).
Nikki already has a habit of seeing her husband wherever she looks, but for once her eyes aren’t playing tricks on her when she heads on a whim to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and finds herself face-to-face with Garrett’s double (Harris again). Too shocked to say anything, but unavoidably fascinated by the sight of someone who so perfectly resembles her tall, handsome husband, she keeps returning to the museum in the days that follow and, eventually sighting him again, follows him to the college where he teaches a painting class.
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Posin remains sympathetically attuned to his heroine’s every move as she asks the man, Tom, if she can enroll in his class, only to break down weeping before making a hasty exit. Bening registers each tremulous shift of emotion as Nikki moves from disbelief to determination to sudden embarrassment at the absurdity of her actions. But the director proves just as intent in his scrutiny of Tom, who finds himself immediately drawn to and moved by this lovely, fragile woman.
Tom begins giving Nikki private painting lessons at home, but it doesn’t take long for them to progress beyond a student-teacher relationship, nursing their growing attraction over wine and art in their beautifully appointed L.A. houses (the work of production designer Jeannine Oppewall). But beyond the conventional satisfactions of watching two lonely, attractive, middle-aged souls fall in love, the story maintains a steady undercurrent of dramatic interest as Nikki, in hiding the fact of Tom’s resemblance to Garrett, can’t help but deceive him and possibly herself.
Always hinting at something deeper beneath the fairly prosaic dialogue, Bening’s complex performance conveys not only Nikki’s almost physical hunger and need for Tom, but also the nuances of a character who seems at once aware of and quietly oblivious to what she’s doing. Nikki tells Tom that her husband left her several years ago but is still alive, a lie that feels strangely right, since he has in one sense returned to her in the flesh. And yet, she’s calculating enough to hide Tom from those who knew her husband, and who would immediately recognize the perversity of the situation — not only Summer, but also Nikki’s neighbor Roger (Robin Williams), who has long carried a torch for her.
It all builds inevitably to Nikki’s reckoning with the consequences of her feelings and actions, and Posin, working in a very different register from that of his 2005 satire “The Chumscrubber,” treats her compassionately while dealing honestly with the fallout. Harris makes the ruggedly good-looking artist an almost ludicrous romantic ideal, and the fact that Tom never evinces too much personality of his own makes him a conveniently blank canvas onto which Nikki can project her husband’s image; still, the actor is enormously appealing as a man who responds with nothing but patience, selflessness and emotional availability to the beautiful enigma that’s wandered into his life.
Made with enough sensitivity to beg a certain guilty-pleasure indulgence and tolerance for its inert stretches, “The Face of Love” tips its hat at several points to the ultimate movie about back-from-the-dead romantic obsession, “Vertigo.” (A poster for the film is seen hanging in a character’s home, and the early shots of Nikki quietly stalking Tom through a museum gallery are nothing if not referential.) That the central characters are all in creative professions — Garrett was an architect, and Nikki works in real-estate staging — seems less a thematically relevant point than a means of ensuring that this gently airbrushed romantic fantasy unfolds in the most elegant, tastefully furnished context imaginable.
Striking a few off-notes are an ending that wraps things up in too trite a fashion, and Williams, giving off distracting vibes in a mildly tragicomic third-wheel role. A very fine Weixler makes Nikki’s daughter at once annoying and understandable in her neediness, and Amy Brenneman is a welcome presence as Tom’s own amiable ex-wife. Use of real L.A. locations, including LACMA and Occidental College, enhance the film’s impeccable craftsmanship.