Friday, March 28, 2014

Doubles: The Face of Love & Enemy

Ed Harris and Annette Bening in  The Face of Love

As a woman who can’t get over the death of her husband in The Face of Love, Annette Bening does her best acting in years. Bening still has the old-Hollywood glamour that made her such a luscious camera subject in Bugsy and The Grifters nearly two and a half decades ago, but the pussycat brittleness has been replaced by elegance: as Nikki, who “stages” empty L.A. houses for resale, she has the aura of a southern California countess. Nikki’s husband Garrett died in a drowning accident during their thirtieth-anniversary vacation in Mexico, and even now, five years later, she hasn’t moved past her grief. The only friend she seems to have retained is her neighbor Roger (Robin Williams), who has also lost his spouse, and her response to the on-again, off-again relationship her daughter Summer (Jess Weixler), who lives up in Seattle, has with her boy friend is to urge her to cut it off rather than set herself up for more pain. Then one day Nikki sees a man who’s a dead ringer for Garrett, and she’s hypnotized. His name is Tom, and he’s a painter. (Ed Harris plays both Tom and, in flashbacks, Garrett.) When she finds out that he teaches studio art classes at a local college she tries to enroll in one, but it’s already halfway through the semester, so she persuades him to give her private lessons at home. Though it quickly becomes clear that she’s not really interested in learning how to paint, by that time he’s begun to fall for her and they become lovers.

In Anthony Mingella’s great 1990 romantic comedy Truly Madly Deeply, Juliet Stevenson plays a woman who is so unmoored by the death of her long-time lover (Alan Rickman) that he returns to her as a ghost in order to push her back into life. The Face of Love isn’t a comedy or a tale of the supernatural; Tom isn’t Garrett reborn but an exact physical double who one day just happens to step freakishly into Nikki’s life. The screenplay by Matthew McDuffie and director Arie Posin contains a suggestive counterbalancing idea – that Tom mires Nikki hopelessly in the past while she pulls him out of the hole he got wedged in ten years earlier when his wife (Amy Brenneman) left him for another man. (Tom tells Nikki that no woman has ever looked at him as adoringly as she does, not realizing that the look of love is directed not at him but at another man, long deceased.) The script is, of course, a take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where Jimmy Stewart, devastated by the suicide of the woman he was hired to tail and fell in love with, sees her double on the street and tries desperately to turn her into the dead woman. Vertigo is a murder mystery with a twist that explains the doubling, but in The Face of Love we’re meant to take the doubling at face value. By chance, a few hours after I’d seen it I had dinner with a screenwriter friend who talked (in quite a different context) about the experience of watching a movie in which the given of the plot is so implausible that you keep waiting for the revelation that will explain it. That was my response to The Face of Love, even though you can see from the outset that it’s a romantic melodrama, not a thriller like Vertigo. And Posin and McDuffie don’t portray Nikki’s transference of her love for Garrett to Tom as a spiraling descent into madness, like Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine/Judy in Hitchcock’s picture, so – for reasons that aren’t her fault – Bening’s performance seems to be missing a crucial section.

Robin Williams in The Face of Love
She’s at her best in the early stages of Nikki’s romance with Tom – and even earlier, when, after seeing him for the first time, she goes home and runs her finger over Garrett’s sweater in a family photo as if she thought it would suddenly come alive to her touch. When Nikki decides to find Tom’s art class, Bening combines fear with daring, leaping past what she knows is the preposterousness of her actions, but when she’s face to face with him she falls apart, bursting into tears and trying to erase what she’s done, protesting that she’s made a bad mistake. (The fact that she’s tried to enter a class halfway through covers her protests; Tom’s assumption, based on the few facts she offers him, that her messy, boiling-over emotions are the result of empty-nest syndrome covers her tears.) Instead of admitting that her husband is dead, she tells Tom that he left her, and weeks go by before he learns the truth – weeks in which she can pretend that he is Garrett. On their first date she suggests a sushi restaurant that was a favorite of hers and Garrett’s, but then she can’t go through with the meal and asks him to take her home, and naturally he’s baffled. Bening is terrific at getting the push-pull of Nikki’s interaction with Tom, and Harris counters with a performance of genuine emotional delicacy. Posin does fine work with both of them and with the talented Jess Weixler (Robyn the law-firm detective on The Good Wife), whose relaxed sensuality matches up well with Bening’s. Bening and Harris in particular transcend the dialogue, which is awfully bald. On the other hand, Robin Williams is terrible; his finger seems permanently glued to the melodrama button. Moreover, the part is written as if it were the heroine’s gay best friend, so we don’t really believe the stuff about Roger’s dead wife, and when Nikki confides to him that she’s found someone and he’s hurt because she’s never shown any romantic interest in him, you think you’ve skipped a beat somewhere.

After Tom learns the truth and walks away from Nikki, the picture advances a year and provides a coda to the story. Tom has died, and his ex, Anne (who stayed friends with him after their break-up), invites Nikki to a memorial gallery show of his work that showcases his substantial output in the year before his death, a return to painting after a decade of inactivity. Anne leads Nikki to one quite beautiful painting called “The Face of Love” that shows Tom standing outside a glass wall, looking past his own reflection at Nikki stepping out of a swimming pool. (Tom’s paintings, which evoke David Hockney’s southern-California work and that of native SoCal artists, are by Tracey Sylvester Harris.) The painting fills Nikki with joy, I guess because she realizes the extent to which she’s been loved and takes it as a gift, but this sort-of-happy ending didn’t scan: is she so solipsistic that she feels no remorse at having broken the poor bastard’s heart?

Jake Gyllenhaal in The Enemy

The psychological thriller Enemy is also about doubles; its source material is a José Saramango book called The Double that I assume was inspired by the Dostoevsky story of the same name. (Bernardo Bertolucci threw the original story into a modern setting in his 1968 picture Partner.) Jake Gyllenhaal plays a history professor named Adam Bell who rents a movie one night and discovers that a bit player in the film named Anthony Claire looks exactly like him, so he tracks him down to the talent agency that represents him and then to his home. When Adam calls, Anthony’s wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers the phone and assumes she’s talking to her husband, so Adam figures out that he and his alter ego also have the same voice; when the two men meet, it turns out that they also have the same scar on their stomachs and the same birthday. At that point the two men’s lives become intertwined.

For about forty-five minutes, the movie is intriguing. Working with production designer Patrice Vermette and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, the Québecois director Denis Villeneuve (who worked with Gyllenhaal on Prisoners) gives it an underlit, metallic tan-and-gray urban-industrial look that has a creepy anonymity, like the landscape of one of those anxiety dreams where your efforts to get somewhere lead you farther and farther from your destination. And the Toronto settings underscore the drifting, ominous mood. But halfway through the plot stops making sense and the rhythms become punishingly monotonous. Anthony accuses Adam of sleeping with his wife and decides to get revenge by sweeping Adam’s girl friend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent), off for a romantic getaway. The problem is that you don’t believe either woman would be fooled by this bait-and-switch. The film critic Michael Sragow once wrote, hilariously, about David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers that Jeremy Irons played the sinister twin gynecologists at the center of the movie as if they were Dr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde, but Gyllenhaal errs in the opposite direction: tentative, stammering Adam, who always looks like he’s sleepwalking, is utterly unlike cocky, aggressive Anthony except in appearance. Gyllenhaal is very talented, but he’s begun to fall into the trap that many serious young performers get stuck in: committing so completely to shabby, monochromatic characters that you no longer feel like watching him. Gyllenhaal times two in Enemy equals semi-coherent angst plus semi-coherent menace – a lot of blur.

There’s a scene at a private sex club involving a woman and a reptile that Villeneuve cuts off before you can figure out exactly what the hell’s going on in it (and as far as I’m concerned, that’s just fine). At first you think it’s Adam’s nightmare, but then it turns out to be real, and at the end the film appears to turn into Naked Lunch. I thought Prisoners was nutty (without being even remotely enjoyable to watch) but ultimately Enemy is totally insane. Maybe Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal should stop collaborating. They don’t seem to be doing each other much good.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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