The premise of Arie Posin’s The Face Of Love—in which a widow falls in love with a worldly artist who happens to be a dead ringer for her late husband—has the makings of a great, Douglas Sirk-style melodrama. The subtext pops with possibilities; for fiftysomething Nikki (Annette Bening, in what could be called the Jane Wyman role), painter Tom (Ed Harris) represents both an opportunity to morbidly continue her relationship with the drowned Garrett (also Harris) and a chance to live the kind of free-spirited, Bohemian life their marriage never allowed. She is at once intoxicated by their romance—the best of both this world and the next—and embarrassed by it, keeping Tom’s resemblance to Garrett a secret from her friends, daughter, and from Tom himself.
Unfortunately, the tension of this premise ends up being the most compelling thing about The Face Of Love. Melodramas risk ridicule by trying to translate the intensity of a dramatic close-up to a sweeping, swelling wide shot; the result can be transportive and sublime, or it can provoke unintended giggles from the audience. The Face Of Love is unwilling to make the big gamble, instead hedging its bets with an unremarkable, bobbing-medium-shot visual style that seems chiefly concerned with making sure that the actor’s faces are visible while they sit and talk. This cable-drama aesthetic is neither focused enough to play off the actors’ performances, nor grand enough to resonate on that abstract emotional level.
It also makes the movie’s handful of attempts at melodramatic gesture seem clumsy. Bodies of water—namely, the ocean and Nikki’s pool—provide the movie’s major visual motif, signaling both possibility and fear. However, The Face Of Love never frames them compellingly, and they end up registering as screenwriting devices rather than visual metaphors. A sequence in which Nikki spots Tom holding his breath in her pool—the image asymmetrically intercut with a wide-shot flashback of Garrett’s body—is undermined by a lack of rhythm. A climactic scene where Tom runs after Nikki along a beach is similarly un-compelling, putting Tom and Nikki center-frame at the expense of the ocean and magic-hour sky. The Face Of Love provides itself with countless similar opportunities for emotional sweep, and squanders most of them by being workmanlike and unambitious, presuming that a story and a string score are enough to carry a movie.