Easily the most romantically Sirkian picture in independent cinema’s recent string of Hitchcockian doppelganger releases, much like Enemy, Arie Posin’s Face of Love acknowledges its inspiration with a subtly affectionate yet purposeful prop placement of a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it Vertigo poster early into the film.
Yet while it’s one of several puzzle pieces you’re supposed to put together and eventually decipher in Enemy, Posin and his co-screenwriter Matthew McDuffie are much more open in their soap operatic homage to Hitch’s greatest work in this straightforward tale.
In Love, the duo pay tribute not only to Vertigo's character archetypes and sets (an art museum plays a pivotal role, for example) but also work in some obvious cinematographic references and callbacks to the 1958 masterpiece that are sure to amuse film buffs on that level alone.
It’s just a shame that – aside from some tremendous turns by its ensemble trio – unfortunatelyy there’s not enough holding Love together beyond the film’s chemistry, artistry and in particular its organic and impressively humanistic approach to Vertigo’s melancholic treatment of being given a second chance at love.
After losing her husband (Ed Harris) of many years to a riptide drowning accident on their anniversary celebration in Mexico, Nikki (Annette Bening) emotionally shuts down and closes herself off to everything around her, moving through the world as though she were encased in a protective shell.
We catch up with her five years later – just going through the motions of a daily existence back in Los Angeles where she stages houses to “breathe life into the emptiness” of architecture. Things take an intriguing turn when on a typically uneventful day, she accidentally crosses paths with a stranger (Harris again) whose uncanny resemblance to her departed love manages to breathe life into the emptiness of her shell, however fleetingly.
Recounting the run-in to her loyal neighbor (and fellow widower Robin Williams), Nikki tells him the incident “felt like being alive again.”
But before you start to question the metaphysical basis of the film as a sort of romantic hybrid of Hitch, Ghost and the sort of women’s weepies of the 1940s that might’ve starred Gene Tierney, Posin and McDuffie reaffirm their commitment to stay rooted in reality.
However as the film continues and Nikki invariably hunts down the lookalike before a tentative friendship blossoms into a romance of convenient predictability, I couldn’t help but realize that in retrospect, their decision to make everything so cut and dried might have been a mistake. Namely, once we get over our initial surprise, Face is ultimately missing some sort of element that would’ve rationalized the heroine’s at times awful behavior and kept us guessing.
By playing it fully straight as the grieving Nikki hides the truth and begins bringing her new beau to all the old familiar places like a gender reversal Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, we lose sympathy for her way too quickly and doubly so after learning of her new man’s sudsy secret.
Moreover, by constantly having her postpone the inevitable of coming face-to-face with her daughter (Jess Weixler) or neighbor who could out her deception at any time, the movie only has one place left to go and one hand left to play which doesn’t make it very exciting once we reach the second, troubled act.
Stuck in the middle of the sea without anything to push the sailboat towards the shore whether it’s wind or a new obstacle like rain (or even a damn riptide), Love begins to sink despite the valiant efforts of its mesmerizing cast to try and make us believe that they've had a trustworthy compass they’ve been following all along. Instead, it feels like there were a few script changes and rewrites in the final act that didn't make this transition to film any smoother.
Nonetheless buoyed by some genuinely poetic dialogue and marvelously sophisticated subtextual layers early on (as Nikki is offered a museum ticket to an exhibit called “In Pursuit of the Past” just before she first lays eyes on Harris), it’s clear how much skill Posin and McDuffie have to build tension and create drama.
I just wish they would have dedicated as much energy to the second half as they did to the first.
Frustratingly, they introduce some terrific ingredients in addition to Nikki’s “alive” line that go nowhere but could’ve salvaged the film and led us everywhere, including making us realize fairly early that her neighbor had been hopelessly in love with Nikki for years, much like Stewart’s gal pal in Vertigo.
From a wasted subplot and supporting role for her daughter (the talented Good Wife actress Weixler) to some gorgeous cinematography by Spanish cameraman Antonio Riestra, there’s a much stronger film buried somewhere beneath the idea, the intent, the script and the footage that was shot than the one that wound up on the screen.
From the universally relatable premise of wanting more time with someone we’ve loved and lost to the fact that this film, which feature’s Bening’s most radiant turn in years comes from such a raw personal place for Posin (as it was inspired by a chance sighting of a lookalike by his widowed mother), the end result isn’t half as effective as it should’ve been.
Luckily and thanks to the talent of the cast and crew who’ve accumulated twenty Oscar nods between them, even though it loses its way around the middle of this succinct 92 minute feature, The Face of Love looks very different to us all.
And at the very least there’s something lovably genuine about Posin's well-intentioned but flawed endeavor from the lyrical line reads to the heartbreak of Robin Williams (alongside Bening and Harris) that makes Love worthy of taking the face time to see it for yourself.
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