The Face of Love has a promising hook for a romantic melodrama. Nikki (Annette Bening) is a successful widow who frequently turns to her memories of her dead husband, Garrett (Ed Harris), for refuge from her new life of rattling around alone in a fabulous but empty Southern Californian home. Occasionally, her friend and neighbor, Roger (Robin Williams), swings by to provide and receive companionship, but he’s even more depressed and stuck in the past than Nikki. A widower, Roger nurses an inevitably melancholic crush on Nikki, whom he sees as a companion for navigating what he appears to assume will be a generally hopeless final act of their lives. Eventually upsetting this uncomfortable but stable arrangement is Tom (also played by Harris), a studly painter who falls for Nikki and happens to look and sound exactly like Garrett.
The plot is knowingly reminiscent of a number of classics concerned with a romantic death obsession, most obviously Laura, Vertigo, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, as well as almost every movie directed by David Lynch, but The Face of Love’s resemblance to those films is ultimately revealed to be superficial and exceedingly hopeful. Those movies were driven by a tightening sense of emotional claustrophobia that drew you closer into the protagonists’ points of view the further they drifted from reality. The Face of Love, however, remains irritatingly on the surface; it’s an almost offensively “tasteful” dud that’s more alive to the set design than the characters’ motivations.
Director Arie Posin fetishizes the feng shui of his characters’ privileged environments (particularly a chic swimming pool) while Nikki and Tom are left dutifully uttering platitudes about love and trust. We never get to know the couple apart from a few of the usual romance-movie details that serve to essentially absolve the filmmakers of having to show them working or interacting with friends outside of their new bubble. There’s no momentum and precious little in the way of subtext or spontaneity, as the narrative’s entirely devoted to building the audience’s anticipation for Tom’s inevitable discovery that he looks just like his new girlfriend’s dead husband—a reveal that’s dramatically squandered by Poslin and Harris’s disastrous failure to differentiate Garrett and Tom from one another as respective human beings. You keep forgetting that you’re not watching Garrett, who should be theoretically haunting the film as a totem of an unreachable yet undying past, because when Tom’s on screen it’s as if Garrett has simply reappeared after a year or two in the Midwest and taken up painting. After spending 88 minutes in this world of wistfully flatulent materialism, you wouldn’t wonder why it would take him so long to return.