Two Lovers (James Gray, 2009) April 23, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Hollywood.
Directed by James Gray
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw
I understand the danger of getting into sentimentality when it comes to writing about films that have deeply affected me. As much as I would want to control unnecessary descriptions and unrelated arguments, my judgment will always be in total agreement with my emotions. It is such a grave dilemma then to choose whether to present the film for what it really is—the plot, the actors, the treatment, the effectiveness of the film as a whole, and some minor nits—or make a fiction out of it, which more or less gives me a reason to go out of my way and be incoherent as usual. For such a marvelously dated film like Two Lovers, which is basically about a man with some loose screws in his head falling not for the charmingly sweet woman that his parents have set up for him but for the lady next door who is seeing a married man, it will only do it a disservice just to appreciate its sound storytelling and sublime portrait of heartbreak without interpreting them, especially the latter, which, again, as I have warned you in the beginning of this paragraph, is a vulnerably dangerous excuse for an emotional writer to gibber all he wants.
Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the charmingly sweet woman, loves Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) in such a way that is difficult to resist. She gives him unexpected gifts. She tells him she loves The Sound of Music. She wants to take care of him, and her father, on the other hand, wants to take care of his family’s business. It’s a win-win situation; it has the future of unconditional happiness. Leonard loves her but he doesn’t love her strong enough to control himself from falling for Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the lady next door, who regards him as a brother, asking him to check for her the married man she is going out with for a long time. Leonard is madly in love with Michelle. He tells her, “I’m not a little kid. This isn’t some stupid fucking crush. You think I don’t know love?” There seems to be no problem with Leonard choosing which woman he wants to be with, but with human nature everyone is bound to disappoint. When things have finally worked out for him to be with Michelle, it is when the joke comes in, shredding him into pieces, reverting to his self who jumped off the bay with delivery clothes in his hands, surfacing on the water and changing his mind.
It is unnecessary to bring up that Leonard has bipolar disorder, considering that people without it do worse things. The peculiarity of his actions—his charm, his boyishness, his defeating attractiveness—is awkward in a beautiful way. From start to finish we feel concerned, we feel the need to look after him, yet we maintain some distance and we want him to decide things on his own. His selfishness is almost pardonable; his emotional imprisonment reflects our own. Phoenix gives a lot of soul to Leonard in his “final” film, a performance that sort of reminds you of old Hollywood actors attacking a difficult role without overtly showing it. He is terrific in his own laid-back way, knocking us out with his strangely convincing dedication to details, horsing around, dancing foolishly, rapping half-wittedly. In Gray’s films, Phoenix makes you realize what other actors of his league are not doing, or not doing fairly well. He had a damn crew all right.
Pain is a terrible feeling, physical, emotional, or both. Sometimes people take for granted how pain can be wounding for someone, how hard it feels to confront the ugliness of living, the unfairness of circumstances, the bleak house to go home to every single day. I wonder, is love something we conveniently created to pain ourselves? If we keep falling over and passing out, how come we still manage to stand, to pretend, to believe that everything’s going to be all right? Michelle’s change of mind the last minute presents that truth, that we are just at the mercy of chance and circumstances, that one flick of hand can take every hope away, like happy black and white photographs slowly turning gray, the people’s faces almost forgotten, like a metaphor slowly losing its meaning. It’s similar to having a trap door under one’s chair—it can open anytime without warning, with no alarms and no surprises. Gray shows how our families tend to trap us, but he also shows how we tend to trap ourselves without admitting it, just by wallowing we lose our will to live, and in solitude we inflict ourselves the unbearable. He nails it here, and it is painful to see a common feeling magnified on screen, as if it is the way of the world: to see pain to feel pain, to feel pain to forget pain, to forget pain to pain again, experienced over and over again, through and through, from pillar to post.
It was only mentioned in passing but it was the Tay-Sachs disease that Leonard tells Sandra about that inspired Gray to write the story, with the help of Richard Menello, that eventually became Two Lovers. It is a disorder that Gray himself carries, being an Ashkenazi Jew, and upon finding out that his wife was negative for the disease, he realizes how many relationships it could have destroyed if both members of a couple are carriers of Tay-Sachs. Leonard tells that his wedding was called off because he and his fiance were tested positive for the disease and the doctor told them that given their condition, their children would not have a chance of making it past the age of four. That important detail, which drills a hole through unseen depth in his character, puts Leonard in faulty wariness to doubt his future relationships. Gray could have abused that past to spark the drama but that is far from his intention. He is non-confrontational but he works his storytelling magic belligerently, he keeps touching our sorest spot, the most sensitive of our emotions, our most chafed heart. For a life without heartbreak is like a map with no ocean, with no one to embrace and nothing to be comforted with, a night with no stars, a room with no window, a tree with no leaf, and a voice with nothing but silence.