Two Lovers (Gray, 2009)


February 27, 2010

I didn’t like James Gray’s film Two Lovers very much. But someday soon I’m going to love it.

You have one or two of those movies, haven’t you? The movies you frowned about afterward, but two years later you were watching them for the fifth time, your enthusiasm growing?

It’s my first experience with a James Gray film, and from what I’ve read about his previous works (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night), I was expecting something moody with decent performances.

What I didn’t expect was a film that would trap me in the middle of several difficult questions.

In case you haven’t discovered it yet:

The film follows Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), a lost soul still living with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov). He’s jumpy, twitchy, and he mumbles like… well, like Joaquin Phoenix in recent public appearances. Even though he looks to be in his mid to late 30s, he behaves there as if he’s a moody, bashful eighteen-year-old suffering from an excess of parental monitoring and concern.

In time we learn that Leonard is bipolar. And worse, he’s tried suicide more than once, traumatized by the breakup with his fiancee. But in spite of these explanations, it’s hard not to wonder if his hovering parents might not be largely responsible for his anxieties. (I even wondered, throughout the film, if we were being told the straight story about what happened with Leonard’s ex-fiance.) Whatever the case, his recovery from the crisis is a process of mothering and medication.

Leonard’s father, a Jewish immigrant and a longtime Coney Island dry-cleaner, is kind but distracted by his business. Leonard’s mother is so dutifully concerned that one comes to suspect she either shares Leonard’s feelings of imprisonment or she’s hiding beneath layers of formality for some reason that will be revealed. They keep Leonard under rigorous, but not unloving, surveillance.

For Leonard to find himself caught up in not one but two rushed romances seems unlikely. What young woman wouldn’t be thoroughly spooked by his shiftiness? He looks more like a potential stalker than boyfriend material. (But far be it from me to say it couldn’t happen. I’ve seen women I admire fall hard for some of the most reckless and unstable men I’ve ever met — and suffer the consequences.) Anyway, Leonard gains the trust and admiration of both the level-headed and sweet Sandra (the radiant Vinessa Shaw) and she who will be known as “The Accident Waiting to Happen and Probably Repeatedly” — a drug-addicted flirt named Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Of course, Leonard’s parents want him to fall in love and marry Sandra. She’s part of a family like theirs, after all. And what is more, this can only help their desire to see the two dry-cleaning businesses merge. And why not? She’s lovely, sexy, and clearly ready to climb all over Leonard (much to my bewilderment).

Leonard is willing to play along, as if a part of his brain gets that this is sensible, and the other part gets that Sandra is smokin’ hot.

But the same part of his brain that is clearly hot for Sandra is even hotter for Michelle. Michelle’s more exciting. And she exists outside the formidable walls of Leonard’s controlled existence. But she’s also in trouble. Having made her happiness dependent on the affections of a manipulative married man (Elias Koteas), she’s an emotional wreck, and strung out on drugs to boot.

So, there’s the setup.

Leonard and Michelle, on top of the world, where it is very cold, and it’s a long, long way down to earth.

Watching the film, I was frustrated to see adult characters behaving like such foolish teens. But I was also confounded that they would be drawn to each other in the first place. I couldn’t decide, was this just poor casting? The actors are good — no, they’re great — but this seems like a story for much younger characters. Or were they cast for the deliberate purpose of creating such discomfort?

Whatever the case, such a scenario can only end a few ways. Leonard ends up with Option A, or Option B, or neither, or he kills himself, or Options A and B fall in love and things take a perverse dive.

But the ending of Two Lovers, as unimaginative as it seemed at first, has been stuck in my head for days. And I can’t decide whether its presence in the back of my mind is welcome or not.

I found the story unpleasant, unlikely, and often very annoying. But the cinematography and the performances were so darkly fascinating that I kept watching.

And now, I can’t stop thinking about Leonard: about how I’ve actually come to care about what happens to him; how I want him to survive; to be free, living an authentic life of preferences and pursuits; but also to to remain under supervision; to be guided into wise choices so that he won’t mess himself up again. I want him to know passion, but also to grow old with a faithful wife and a loving, supportive family. I want him to have a good job in his future. But I also want him to live with zeal and courage, breaking free from the life his parents have so rigorously designed and predetermined for him.

What is best for Leonard?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character who is quite the same kind of aggravating and endearing as Leonard. Phoenix is brilliant here. He makes the dumbest lines seem real. He never overplays a moment. He makes Leonard scary, sad, and ultimately sympathetic, somebody we hope will break free even as we hope he stays under close observation.

And this is it. This is why I know I will come to love this movie. It does what the very best art does:

It wraps itself around a question. It gives us many entry points into the story, and leaving us in sufficient doubt about the conclusion. That way, viewers will arrive at myriad opinions and interpretations. They’ll have many different desired outcomes, many different concerns for the characters, many different predictions about what might happen next.

And yet, rather than just being merely enigmatic and confounding, Two Lovers expresses something that is true about all of us. Even if we look at these broken creatures with alarm or disgust, face it: We experience the tension between the desire to live a life of authentic passion and the desire to avoid catastrophic mistakes. We want to make choices with wild abandon, but we want to be restricted just enough that we will be rescued from the consequences of our weaker moments.

I sympathize with Leonard’s longings, but fear what will take place if he shuts out everything else and pursues them. It’s a fractured world, and any choice, any outcome will be imperfect and leave him wondering “What if?” But which outcome would be worse? Brief, reckless, and liberating bliss — leading, almost inevitably to disaster? Or enduring but difficult love and responsibility, in union with a woman of forgiveness and grace, surrounded by support?

But no, it doesn’t feel right to take from Two Lovers some abstract lesson that is universal. What I love best is that Gray and his co-scripter Richard Menello have given everything, and every character, such particularity. It is not about Everyman, but this man: This sometimes slovenly, sometimes boyishly playful man.

And it’s not about two “kinds of women”, but these women. Gray has not made Sandra homely; he has allowed Vinessa Shaw to make her genuinely alluring, warm, and wonderful. To choose her would not be to surrender sensuality and idiosyncracy. But in most directors’ hands, Sandra would have been painfully plain.

Nor is Michelle a goddess. She applies makeup with a trowel before going out on the town to behave like a spoiled college girl. She’s maddeningly fickle, capable of terrifying gullibility, and almost irreversibly damaged by addiction, sure to fail in anything she sets out to do. But thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow’s remarkably subtle work (Why isn’t she given great roles more often?) there is just enough grace left in Michelle, just enough potential for recovery, that we dare to hope she’ll escape the traps she’s set for herself.

It also helps that the film’s locations and cinematography amplify the murkiness of Leonard’s quandaries. The walls of his Brighton Beach surroundings are claustrophobia-inducing. When he looks out his window it’s as though another part of the building is about to fall down on him. And there, far above, is mercurial Michelle all Rapunzel-like in the window, doing the “I’ll show you my true feelings for you by opening my shirt” thing — a move that made sense when it was the confused teen in American Beauty, but just seems like another immature display from the Mess That Is Michelle. She leaves Leonard as awestruck as a teen with a dangerous crush. His obsession make it seem entirely possible that he might cut all of his lifelines in a hopeless attempt to save her.

And as contrived as the climactic moments seemed when I saw Two Lovers the first time, I must admit I gasped when the head-slappingly obvious image of a solitary glove on the edge of the tide played onscreen. It wasn’t because it was a brilliant idea (it was Visual Poetry 101), but because the shot itself was fantastic.

This is a perplexing film. But I’d much rather have one of those than a dozen well-made films that wrap things up neatly, deliver their conclusions, and leave me stammering the next day as I strive to answer the question, “What did I see last night?” The script wouldn’t have given me much hope for anything interesting. It’s all the complications that fill those silences and burdened glances between the lines. And it’s the wave of relief I felt at the outcome; and then that second, unexpected wave of dread that quickly followed as I guessed what would probably come next; and then, the wave that came after that, which made me think, Well, isn’t that better than the alternative? And the next wave… and the next….

I’d better stop. I’m falling for Two Lovers even now. And I’m not yet sure if embracing this film is a wise and responsible decision or a mad and reckless crush  that I’ll eventually get over.

I suddenly feel like Leonard.