The first ten minutes of The Face of Love function as what might be called a statement of purposelessness, announcing exactly how and why the movie will be bad. A middle-aged woman (Annette Bening) sits in her nicely furnished home making distraught faces while flashbacks reveal a trip she took with her husband (Ed Harris) on their 30th wedding anniversary. He drowned during this trip, which must be the reason she looks so unhappy. In the present-tense scene Bening is illumined by light reflecting off her swimming pool, a detail that instantly registers as overdetermined; the water is meant to evoke memories of her husband’s death, which are as integral to her existence as the pool is to her estate.
This wouldn’t feel quite so ham-fisted if the filmmakers didn’t define the character solely through her grief, or if they told us anything about her marriage except that it was happy. She sorts through her late husband’s possessions, which prompts generically happy memories. Five years pass, and her adult daughter, visiting for a weekend, notes that she never uses the pool. One day after work (she redecorates vacant homes for resale, another clunky metaphor for wrestling with the past), the protagonist visits the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she sees a man who’s the spitting image of her dead husband.
The setup recalls the work of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski—specifically No End (1985) and Blue (1993), which concern independent women living in the shadows of their late spouses, and The Double Life of Veronique (1991), about identical-looking women who lead parallel lives. Kieslowski often considered the impact of chance and coincidence on our lives, yet these metaphysical musings were always grounded in precise depictions of the everyday. He celebrated those parts of life that have nothing to do with chance—social position, work schedule, family ties—and the tension between the random and the predetermined introduces an element of ambiguity to his films. By contrast, The Face of Love never delves too far into its characters’ everyday lives, and its metaphysical premise eventually gives way to simplistic melodrama. Bening gets to know the double and they fall in love, though she’s too embarrassed to tell him what first attracted her. The story putts along until she can no longer hide the truth, at which point there are some big emotional outbursts.
Of the two leads, Harris gives the more nuanced performance, if only because the script (by Matthew McDuffie and director Arie Posin) gives him more to work with. His character, a painting instructor, lived a bohemian life when he was younger; his marriage dissolved because he was unfaithful; and his life is threatened by a heart condition. It almost makes sense that he’d respond favorably to Bening’s wealthy bore, but not enough to overcome the sense of contrivance that all but suffocates the film.