Director: James Gray
Brooklyn Beach, New York, the present day. Leonard Kraditor, a young bipolar man, attempts suicide after a failed engagement. He is pulled out of the river and denies to those who rescue him that he tried to kill himself. Leonard’s parents, Reuben and Ruth, own a dry-cleaning business, which is soon to go into partnership with the business owned by Michael Cohen. The Cohens visit the Kraditors for dinner, during which the parents attempt to set Leonard up with their daughter, Sandra, but she admits she wanted to meet him. Leonard then witnesses an argument between his neighbour, Michelle and her father, and he allows Michelle to take refuge in his apartment. They strike up a friendship, but their night out is interrupted when Michelle is upset by a telephone call from her lover, Ronald, a married man.
Michelle invites Leonard to meet Ronald, to find out whether he’s serious about her. Ronald asks Leonard to look out for Michelle. Leonard photographs the bar mitzvah of David, the Cohen’s son, but leaves early because Michelle is having a miscarriage. Sandra tells Leonard that she wants to care for him and understands him. Michelle wants to end her relationship with Ronald and move to San Francisco. Leonard tells her he loves her and will go with her. Michael Cohen meets Leonard and notices he has an engagement ring, assuming it’s for Sandra. Leonard leaves his parents’ New Years party to meet Michelle, but Ronald has left his family and she has chosen him. Leonard returns and hands Sandra the ring, embracing her.
‘Two Lovers’ potentially marks the end of Joaquin Phoenix’s acting career, although whether his latest venture into rap music is believable as anything other than a cynical publicity stunt or a poorly devised piece of performance art is open to question. In fact, ‘Two Lovers’ even provides an opportunity for Phoenix to showcase his rapping, ahem, talent. Phoenix has certainly done his best acting work in the films of James Gray, who sees Phoenix as a muse of sorts, and it’d certainly be a disappointment if the pair no longer made any films together. ‘Two Lovers’ is set in the Russian-Jewish community that Gray knows only too well, which has been the setting for his work ever since ‘Little Odessa’ (1994). In the Kraditor home, Gray’s camera observes with some sensitivity the traditions of the family; the wall in the hall adorned by dozens of photographs spanning several generations. Russian orthodox churches can be seen in the scenes on the roof of the apartment block. The Kraditor’s New Years party shows this specific community coming together, underlining the importance of tradition and the solidity of this community, which continues to grow.
Using the Dostoyevsky short ‘White Knights’ as his template (as did Bresson for ‘Four Nights of a Dreamer’), Gray creates an affecting and dramatic love triangle between Leonard, Sandra and Michelle. Leonard, a bipolar young man who takes a cocktail of medication daily to control his moods has a history of depression and suicide attempts; the scars on his wrists are still visible and he’s tried to drown himself on at least two instances. The sensible and level-headed Sandra knows she’s been set up with Leonard because of the intended merger between their parents’ businesses, but she has a genuine fondness and interest in him, appreciating his sensitivity. When she says she understands Leonard, does she in the same sense as Michelle, the glamorous young woman who turns Leonard’s head at the wrong time? Michelle has her own problems; her erratic emotions relating to her relationship with the married Ronald, her self-diagnosed ADHD, her own use of drugs, although for recreational use. Michelle and Sandra are clearly set up as polar opposites for the purpose of the film; perhaps Sandra is what Leonard needs most, to stabilise him, but in Michelle he sees a kindred spirit and someone he can help, rather than himself be someone who needs help. It’s a dilemma that one can almost predict the outcome to, but Gray ensures that the course of fate doesn’t run smoothly and ultimately the film’s climax is born out of complete pragmatism.
The most impressive aspect of Gray’s characterisation is how he manages to make all his protagonists human and likeable. All are torn by their emotions but attempt to do what’s best for others. The Kraditor’s might initially seem like typically interfering parents but they have a genuine concern about Leonard and hope for nothing else than for him to be happy, even at the expense of risking the business merger. Michelle is worried about what her relationship with Ronald is doing to his family, whilst Ronald seems to really love Michelle and doesn’t view her as just a fling. It’s because we can relate to these characters and appreciate their problems that we genuinely feel for these tangled relationships and hope that they can make the right choices.
These relationships almost give the impression that these people haven’t grown up or that they’re not mature enough to cope with their feelings. Leonard’s parents almost retain him in a sense of arrested development. He’s moved back into his childhood bedroom, he has a poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey on the wall; even his relationships have that awkward teenage dimension to them. Take the second rooftop scene with Michelle, when neither of them know what to do once Leonard rushes into his declaration of love, and they make love in a rather uncomfortable, embarrassing fashion. There’s a sense that these people, Leonard and Michelle in particular, are emotionally out of their depth and that settling with partners more mature than them might help them, rather than remaining with each other. However, neither relationship that becomes apparent by the climax immediately strikes one as being a pragmatic solution.
‘Two Lovers’ is a mature melodrama, a stark change from the crime-based films that Gray has made his reputation with thus far, but this change of genre has been successful. The film is well cast, although using Vinessa Shaw as the ‘safe’, less attractive Sandra compared to Gwyneth Paltrow’s more glamorous Michelle requires a slight suspension of disbelief – Shaw’s a rather good looking actress! Still, it’s Phoenix’s film, and if it remains his swansong, then it’s a real loss for the world of acting. As an actor with personal problems of his own in the past, Phoenix really gets into the heart of his character, capturing his bipolar personality and mannerisms – all tics and mumbles to perfection. Gray’s film will inevitably be overlooked by most audiences but it’s a small gem; serious, adult and always involving.