[Slavoj] Zizek tells the story of a man whose wife died of cancer rather suddenly. The man dealt remarkably well with her passing. But his friends noticed that whenever he talked about his wife he held a hamster in his hands—his wife’s beloved pet. Months later the hamster died, the man had an emotional breakdown, and he had to be hospitalized for severe depression. In this philosophical parable, the death of the wife is the death of ideologies and the hamster is the fetish that allows people to persevere in the absence of ideologies. So to the post-ideologist, Zizek asks, “where is your hamster—the fetish which enables you to (pretend to) accept reality ‘the way it is’?” (Zizek, “Afterword,” 252)
—Eric Bain-Selbo, “Popular Culture and the Denigration of the Self”
The Face of Love operates on a premise that, upon reflection, is utterly simple, yet at the same time utterly startling. Five years after the death of her husband Garrett (Ed Harris), Nikki (Annette Bening) decides to go back to an art museum that she frequented with Garrett, following a long time of avoiding it. Not long into her visit, she comes across a man, Tom (also played by Harris), who is identical to Garrett.
As she covertly follows Tom around the museum, the similarity between the two becomes more and more vivid, up to the point where Nikki sees that Tom is not identical to Garrett; he is his double. The visit to the museum was intended to be a moment of moving forward following five years of grief; instead, with one passing glance, Nikki falls back into the life she once knew—and so desperately longs for.
The simplicity of this premise is obvious: there are only so many people in the world, and out of the preponderance of genetic combinations there must inevitably arise people who look similar or indeed identical. Though this is a fairly basic fact of biology and human reproduction, the ramifications of it are massive. In Nikki’s case, the existence of a double for her late husband is a chance to find love all over again.
There’s a trick here, however. While Nikki is taken in by Tom because of his resemblance to Garrett, she deliberately excludes any information about Garrett from Tom. This makes dramatic irony the operating device of The Face of Love: while the audience knows Nikki’s intentions, Tom does not. As a result, the film that writer/director Arie Posen and cowriter Matthew McDuffie end up making is quite dark, despite their attempts to make the film a reflective romance.
Marcelo Zarvos’ lovely, lilting score often clashes with the way the story troublingly unfolds. The closest analogy to the feelings evoked by The Face of Love is the experience of watching competitive poker on TV: the audience knows who has the winning hand, and when it’s obvious who the losing player is, it’s almost excruciating to watch him try to figure out what the winner’s hand is.
Unlike the winning poker player, of course, Nikki’s case is a sympathetic one. Losing a loved one is an experience no one can ever calculate the impact of beforehand, nor is there a logical timeline for how long the grieving process is supposed to take. Throughout The Face of Love, there are flashes of the psychological ills that result from Nikki treating Tom as a proxy for Garrett, but the film’s light mood and romantic flourishes clash with what could have been a more meaningful exploration of Nikki’s grieving. Her being with Tom is a lot more disturbing than Posen and McDuffie’s depiction would have the audience believe; using someone to fulfill an undisclosed emotional need in the way Nikki does is problematic, for it results in a misunderstanding of expectations.
This becomes all the more tragic when Nikki (and the audience) finds out at the end that Tom was terminally ill, and had failed to tell Nikki that he was in his last years. They both hid major things from each other; the distinction comes in that one was hiding the real reason for what seemed to be a genuine love connection.
At the movie’s end, the two are no longer together; for that reason, the death of Tom is far less sad than it would have been had he and Nikki remained together. The two break up following a trip to Mexico, where Tom discovers Nikki’s true intentions for him upon finding a picture of Nikki and Garrett. In this moment, the impacts of Nikki’s decision become clear. She fooled Tom into believing she was with him because she genuinely loved him. In reality, Nikki was in love with another man. She loved Tom for his face, but his face belongs to someone else.
The quotation at the beginning of this review is the truest summation of Nikki’s love: to use Zizek’s phrase, hers is a fetishistic love. To anyone looking in from the outside, Tom is her means of moving on. To Nikki, however, Tom is her hamster, if you will; something that allows her to superficially accept that Garrett has died, but lets him live on in memory through the body of someone else.
When Nikki’s daughter (Jess Weixler) meets Tom, she screams and yells. She demands that he leave her mother’s house. Tom, of course, has no idea what is going on, but such is the nature of grief in The Face of Love: it hides its fetishes in others, unable to let go of what has come to pass. The most honest moment in the film comes when, after Tom discovers why Nikki is with him, Nikki breaks down in tears and anger, yelling at Tom (though using Garrett’s name), asking why he had to die and leave her to mourn. In this outburst, the fetish is brought to the surface.
Bening and Harris do the best they can with this material, and given their skill as actors, it’s easy to find things to like about them and their characters. The story of The Face of Love remains an intriguing one by the conclusion of the movie, but even then it still feels as if this story ended up in the wrong movie. On the surface, The Face of Love wants to be a touching romantic drama, but the nature of the narrative is such that no amount of feel-good moments (or the occasional presence of Robin Williams) can mask the darkness of Nikki’s suffering, and indeed the premise of the film itself.
Included in the DVD release of The Face of Love are a selection of bonus features that range from featurettes to cast interviews. These offer some insight into the movie, but, like the film itself, fail to grasp with the darker side of the film’s emotional core.