On White Nights and Two Lovers December 8, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Hollywood, Literature.
Like beautiful black-and-white photographs
“Do you know why I’m so happy?” she said. “Do you know why I’m so glad when I look at you? Do you know why I love you so today?”
“Well?” I asked, and my heart trembled.
“I love you so, because you haven’t fallen in love with me. Another man in your place would, I’m sure, have begun to pester me, to worry me. He would have been sighing, he would have looked so pathetic, but you’re so sweet!”
Here she clasped my hand with such force that I almost cried out. She laughed.
“Oh, what a good friend you are!” she began a minute later, speaking very seriously. “You’re a real godsend to me. What would I have done if you’d not been with me now? How unselfish you are! How truly you love me! When I am married, We shall be such good friends. You’ll be more than a brother to me. I shall love you almost as I love him! . . .”
– “White Nights,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by David Magarshack, p. 54
One obvious difference between “White Nights” and Two Lovers is the character of Sandra in the film. While the film is somewhat faithful to the Dostoyevsky story in terms of narrative and characterization, James Gray adding her to the plot sharpens the tone of cruelty. If Nastenka leaving the lonely narrator is cruel enough, then Sandra finding out that Leonard is about to elope with Michelle on the day of the party is a fate worse than death. Well that is, if she finds out.
Upon reflection, the two lovers in “White Nights” are the lonely narrator and Nastenka; and Nastenka and her lover who promised to be back to marry her. As far as the story is concerned, and with Dostoyevsky’s precise description, that fact alone is clear. In Two Lovers, on the other hand, there are three: Leonard and Sandra; Leonard and Michelle; and Michelle and Ronald. Gray isn’t going for the literal sense of his title. However, the title is a reference to Leonard’s character—his ideal relationship with Sandra, and his delirious romance with Michelle.
For centuries unrequited love has always been a common subject in film, music, and literature; but the only variables that are present and keep changing are the characters and their situations. Reciprocation is always an issue; and whether or not love is expressed directly to the other, there stays a feeling of absorption in the situation at hand, days and nights spent just the same, leaving oneself in limbo. There is a strong co-dependence between the lovers and their predicament, something that more or less figures as the heart of the story: the tug-of-war between them and the circumstances that bring them together, and the circumstances that will eventually tear them apart. The dénouement often results in the dejection of the protagonist whom we root for with affection, and whom we have identified ourselves with a lot.
On my part, I cried after seeing Two Lovers for the third time, the last one on the big screen. I wanted to see it again just for that reason, thinking that if I see it at the movies I would be crying a bucketful of tears. But I was wrong: I didn’t. The difference between seeing it on DVD, alone in the comfort and privacy of my home, and seeing it in the theater, with people around me muttering and chewing, is that I’m fully aware where I’m at. I am not unmindful of the people around me; thus, my tears are aware of them too. In general, one is more restrained in public places, more capable of composing oneself, and of sobering up.
My third viewing, unlike the two that preceded it, is more cerebral. I notice similarities to other films, particularly the apartment where Leonard and Michelle stay that reminds me of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and the shot of Michelle and Leonard inside a cab with her head on his shoulder that in an image best describes Wong’s Happy Together. Moreover, I realize that when Sandra mentions that one of her favorite films is The Sound of Music, it is really never meant to be funny. I figure Sandra is Maria herself, trying to repress her feelings but is soon to win the heart of her man, only with difficulties. Leonard calling it underrated is in fact hilarious, but that joke attributes more to his character than The Sound of Music itself.
Joaquin Phoenix has given Leonard such character that it is impossible to isolate it from him. Leonard is a role that’s acted so well it doesn’t look like it’s acted. The suspension of disbelief goes as far as now, days and months after seeing the film, even years for sure. While I was never skeptic of his abilities, this is a performance that has such a profound effect on me that I never mind not seeing him act again, as he is serious in pursuing his singing career. Come to think of it, after being entertained by ‘Who’s gonna rock the party right?” “L to the E-O-N-A-R-D,” I might be following that career too.
If I may go back to our short story, I remember, from late May to July in St. Peterburg, the White Nights (Beliye Nochi) are a cause for celebration. The sun never sets, the dusk blends into dawn, and there is no point of complete darkness. Dostoyevsky is uses this atmosphere to evoke the comparison and contrast to his lonely narrator’s fate: comparison to the happiness he felt after a woman talks to him and almost becomes his girlfriend; in contrast with the terrible anxiety he feels, knowing that she will leave him once her lover gets back. We feel the sleeplessness, we feel the whitest of his nights. Dostoyevsky is likewise keen on sharing us the weather, how it pours, how dreadful it is, how often it affects the turn of events in the story.
The lonely narrator reading Nastenka’s letter at the end and musing about it is heartrending. And so much of that pain Gray is able to translate in the closure of Two Lovers. He aims for equivalence. There is no letter: Michelle bids farewell to Leonard, crying, apologizing, and Leonard shouts “Go! Just go!” in pain, unable to control his tears. He walks and finds himself in the comfort of the quiet sea. He throws the ring he was supposed to surprise Michelle with, and picks it up a moment later. As my friend mentions, “Sayang ang singsing.” When he gets back to the house, he offers it to Sandra. Unlike the lonely narrator in “White Nights,” Leonard has Sandra. Unlike the lonely narrator in “White Nights,” we don’t know if Leonard wishes Michelle all the best—if he self-deprecates, if he tells himself something like, “May your sky be always clear, may your dear smile be always bright and happy, and may you be forever be blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness which you gave to another lonely and grateful heart!” We only see his eyes as he embraces Sandra, full of pain, Sandra unaware.
But Leonard is going to be fine. Only everything around him will now look old and decrepit, wrinkled and lusterless, as the lonely narrator sadly observes after reading Nastenka’s letter.