The Face of Love: Toronto Review

Face of Love Still - H 2013
Courtesy of TIFF
Grown-up romance and disturbing psychology make a satisfying match.

Annette Bening plays a widow who stumbles across a dead ringer for her late husband, Ed Harris.

TORONTO — Depicting an episode of grief-fueled insanity that might tempt anyone in the same situation, Arie Posin's The Face of Love offers a widow who, upon meeting her husband's doppelganger five years after his death, can't help but pretend he's the man she's loved her whole life. Annette Bening captivates as the self-delusionist, with Ed Harris ruggedly irresistible as the object of her fantasy. Offering a thread of romance that's sexy despite the unsettling psychology underlying it, the picture holds strong appeal for older auds that is greatly enhanced by a top-shelf cast.

Bening plays Nikki, whose blissful three-decade marriage to Garrett ended when he went nightswimming during a romantic Mexico vacation and washed up dead the next morning. Though she went on with life, finding professional contentment as a stager for high-end real estate, it was an amputated existence: She lost interest in the hobbies and haunts they shared, and beginning to date again never made sense.

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Inspired one day to visit their beloved LACMA for the first time since he died, she glimpses a stranger who looks exactly like her husband. (Harris plays both men.) Though she scoffs when neighbor Roger (Robin Williams) asks later if she approached him, Nikki grows compelled by the notion: Needing to see her love in the flesh again, she stalks the museum for months and, when he finally turns up, tracks him to the college where he teaches art.

Few of us, one supposes, would fail to be tempted by such an apparition. It's when Nikki makes contact that her behavior turns unsettling. Flustered when she first visits his classroom and must converse with this man, Tom, she just says "I haven't thought this through" and leaves before he can stop her. Recovering her composure, she returns and convinces Tom to give her painting lessons in the crisp modern home her architect husband designed.

They connect, and begin dating in a state of goofy happiness usually reserved for first love. Tom, who has never been looked at with such intensity in his life, is overpowered, but even as he's opening up to her, Nikki can't bring herself to tell him the source of her attraction. She won't even say that her husband has died, instead allowing Tom to assume he left her, as his own wife did him.

Bening is convincing as, bit by bit, the character seems to be denying the death to herself as well. She uses the pronoun "we" inappropriately when recalling pleasures shared with her husband; she takes Tom to a favorite restaurant and explains nothing when the staff mistakes him for the dead man; she calls Tom "Garrett."

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Yet part of Nikki -- the part that avoids letting Tom meet Roger, that selfishly keeps her daughter (Jess Weixler) at bay when she needs to come home -- recognizes the delusion. Though the film's conceit brings to mind plenty of Vertigo-like tales of confused-identity romance, its peculiar psychological flavor (not to mention the nature of Garrett's death) recalls Francois Ozon's 2000 Under the Sand, in which Charlotte Rampling (almost exactly Bening's age in 2000) responds to loss in a similar way.

Harris makes Tom a poignant figure, a man who apparently behaved badly with women in his youth but here offers Nikki a degree of understanding and emotional generosity few young men (and fewer still who possess Harris' magnetism) would be capable of. As circumstances push the fledgling relationship toward a crisis, it's Tom's heart we worry about most.

Posin and co-screenwriter Matthew McDuffie find a wholly credible resolution to this love story, but they can't resist a coda that is pat enough (especially in its final shot) to be described as tacky. It's an end as emotionally tidy as the premise is thorny.

Production Company: Mockingbird Pictures
Cast: Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Robin Williams, Amy Brenneman, Jess Weixler
Director: Arie Posin
Screenwriters: Matthew McDuffie, Arie Posin
Producers: Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn
Executive producers: Benjamin Castellano-Wood, Theresa Castellano-Wood, Paige Dunham, Maxine P. Lynn, Ruth Mutch, Amy Lynn Quinn, Les Ware, Amy Ware
Director of photography: Antonio Riestra
Production designer: Jeannine Claudia Oppewall
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky   
Editor: Matt Maddox
No rating, 92 minutes