“The Face of Love” is the kind of movie they don’t make much anymore, at least for theatrical distribution — a romantic melodrama aimed at female audiences, elegantly appointed and packed with emotional kinks. In the old days it might have starred Bette Davis or Joan Crawford or even Gene Tierney, the leading lady of 1945’s unjustly neglected psycho-wife classic “Leave Her to Heaven.”
Instead, we have Annette Bening, a supremely talented actress who knows how to carve this sort of cheese with nuance and conviction. The result, in theaters starting today and available on demand, isn’t a great movie, but it is an excellent guilty pleasure. To paraphrase a line from “Leave Her to Heaven”: There’s nothing wrong with Nikki. She just loves her dead husband too much.
After a brief entr’acte in which we see the blissful 30-year marriage of Nikki (Bening) and Garrett (Ed Harris) come to an end with his accidental drowning at a Mexican resort, “The Face of Love” leaps ahead five years to find the widow still among the living dead. She holes up in the airy Hollywood Hills house her architect husband built for her and comes out only to stage other people’s empty homes for sale. A widower neighbor, Roger (Robin Williams), swims in Nikki’s pool and flashes those Robin-Williams-please-love-me looks at her, but she’s too busy sleepwalking to see.
Until she visits the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and spies Tom (Harris), a painter, college art professor, and dead ringer for the dead husband. In interviews, director/co-writer Arie Posin (“The Chumscrubber”) has said the idea for “The Face of Love” came when his own mother saw a look-alike of her late husband on the street one day; the movie follows through on what Mom did not. It’s a fascinating notion: What would you do? Would you go after him? Would you sleep with him?
With its upscale locations, sunlit exteriors, and tinkly Lifetime-TV score, “The Face of Love” appears at first to be treading a wan rebirth-of-romance path. But there’s that glimpse of a “Vertigo” poster on a wall, and then the music starts chugging a la Hitchcock, and then you notice the crazy in Nikki’s eyes. Harris’s Tom is an affable guy with a friendly ex-wife (Amy Brenneman) and a serious cognitive disorder; how else can you explain his falling passionately in love with Nikki despite her calling him “Garrett” at inopportune moments, hiding him from her grown daughter (Jess Weixler), and generally acting like a woman in the throes of a nervous breakdown?
Maybe this is just how it is in Southern California. The director creates a casual world of upper-middle-class privilege beneath which demons lurk, and the film’s chief fault is that it’s unsure how far or even whether to let those demons out. This is a discreet movie about raging psychosis.
The only thrill, and it’s worth the price of admission, is Bening. In her hands, Nikki is attractive, smart, shallow, and delusional — a woman who made a career out of her man and has been quietly floundering ever since. My guess is that the actress knows something of such women after a few decades in LA, and she does most of her acting through eyes rimmed with mascara and panic.
It’s a bravura performance in a muddled film. “The Face of Love” seems to resolve neatly, with everything back in its bourgeois box, but our last glimpse of Nikki’s face as she surfaces from her pool is one of glorious insanity.