With all the talk about art and Oscar at the Toronto International Film Festival, it's sometimes easy to forget about the melodrama. There are movies here, though, that remind you of why you go to movies in the first place -- to be moved by strange and preposterous emotions. "The Face of Love," which will be released theatrically by IFC later this fall, isn't a great film and a lot of audiences won't be able to get on its old-school wavelength. But the crazier it gets -- and the crazier the bourgeois L.A. widow played by Annette Bening gets -- the more weirdly fascinating the film becomes.
The widow, Nikki, lost her husband five years previously -- in flashbacks he's a strapping architect played by Ed Harris -- and she has been in suspended animation ever since. One day at the LA County Museum of Art, she spies a man who could be his double, a painter named Tom (also Harris), and after the initial shock wears off, she starts stalking the new guy. And dating him. And sleeping with him. Without ever telling him.
Directed in unfashionably straight-ahead style by Arie Posin, "The Face of Love" at first comes across like a well-upholstered and slightly bland TV movie, albeit one with a high-end cast. But as Bening's character falls deeper into her delusion that the painter actually is her late husband, the drama starts to develop baroque curlicues of suspense. In fact, if you can watch "The Face of Love" through the lens of classic women's melodramas of the 1940s and 50s, you can easily imagine Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck biting into this part with extra relish. The best films made by those actresses throbbed with all the headstrong emotions and improper behavior their fans were rarely allowed to express in real life; likewise, Bening portrays a proper upper-middle-class hausfrau sailing deliriously over the edge. When we get to the scene where Tom tries on a seersucker suit like the dead husband used to wear -- and Nikki's eyes pinwheel from the overload -- you might even think you're watching a remake of Hitchcock's "Vertigo" as directed by Douglas Sirk, the master of the barbed Eisenhower-era women's weepie.
Well, all right, "The Face of Love" isnít that brilliant. But it's consistently surprising: Creepy and involving and goosing you with empathetic jolts of tension (basically, whenever Nikki has to hide Tom from anyone who knew her husband, such as Robin Williams as a nosy neighbor or Jess Wexler as her own daughter). In its public screening on Thursday night, the movie gave the Toronto audience some of the best nervous laughs of the entire festival -- which came as a surprise to the director and leading lady. Afterwards, Posin and Bening held court at Velez, a restaurant not far from festival headquarters on King Street, and talked about watching "The Face of Love" for the first time with a paying crowd.
"It doesn't become a movie until people watch it," Bening admitted, and there's truth there: It's more common than you think that the creative forces on a film only understand what they've made when the lights go down for the first public screening. "I know it's happened to me before, where I've been in an audience where they respond in a way you never would have imagined. It's like working on an individual scene, where you've discussed it and worked it out on paper, but then something happens between the people performing it and because of where the camera is, and it becomes something else. There's this alchemy."
Posin described the experience of sitting in the Toronto audience as "completely terrifying and thrilling and confusing and possibly enlightening." But he's been carrying this one around for a while. The seed of "The Face of Love" is based on a family story: Posin's mother spotted a lookalike version of her dead husband crossing the street one day, but left it at that. "'I knew it wasn't your father, but it just felt so good,'" Posin says she told him. "That moment was a touchstone to me for the idea of falling in love and into confusion. There's a madness that can happen."
I'll say. His movie ends with the matter resolved and everyone's emotions neatly tucked back where they belong. For my money, though, the look in Bening's eyes in the film's final shot still spells ka-razy. It's possible "The Face of Love" goes places even its makers aren't fully aware of.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
Take 2 reviews and podcast
Look for new reviews by Ty Burr and Wesley Morris at the end of each week in multiple formats.