Thursday, December 31, 2009
Two Lovers, based on a Visconti film in turn based on the Dostoevsky short story "White Nights," might just be the biggest surprise I've had with a new release since, well, since I began to go to the cinema seriously back in 2007. Oh, I've been pleasantly surprised and bitterly disappointed since then, but nothing on the scale of this restrained romance. As I have said before in other reviews, it's always important to avoid buzz and other reviews of films you plan to see and critique; yet, as anyone who's ever plugged their ears to mute sound knows, you can never fully drown out the noise. I kept hearing dull, muted burblings about Two Lovers and its quality, but even then I simply wasn't prepared for what I saw.
On paper, Two Lovers has all the cluttered contrivances of an overripe melodrama: Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) attempts suicide by jumping off a bridge in the first moments, but changes his mind upon hitting the water and calls for help. He returns home, and we sense from his family's reaction that he's tried something like this before. He cleans up in time for dinner to meet Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), daughter of his father's business partner, and both sets of parents are clearly trying to set their kids up with each other. They indeed have a spark, but the next day Leonard meets his neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), standing in the hallway suffering the abusive screams of her father. Leonard invites her in to his apartment for a respite, and their attraction is immediate. Michelle, though, is dating a married man.
If it seems that I've just waded knee-deep into spoiler territory, know that director James Gray reveals all of this in the first 20 minutes. Gray piles these exaggerations together so quickly and with such a straight face that it never becomes silly, and he uses the other 80 minutes to shape these elements into a searingly realistic depiction of an odd love triangle. As Sandra is the child of close family friends, she knows of some of Leonard's problems and wants to help him. Michelle, addicted to drugs and trapped in warped relationships with the men in her life, is more a reflection of Leonard, just as messed up and self-destructive.
The choice between the genteel, composed superego of Sandra and the unrestrained id of Michelle hardly constitute a revolutionary new structure in a love triangle, but placing a mentally unbalanced protagonist in the middle adds an unsettling layer to the mix: no longer is this setup a means to tempt a man either into bliss or hell but a fully realized drama that offers multiple potential outcomes for either choice. Sandra could nurse Leonard out his depression and instability, but the same is possible for Michelle; Leonard's obvious care for her offers the first fully reciprocated relationship in her life, and perhaps, like an addicts' support group, they can better aid each other through empathetic connections.
The true joy of the film -- if a movie this subdued and quietly devastating can in any way have the signifier "joyous" attached to it -- is its perfect grasp of the harsh reality of love. Love these days hits the screen only in staid, outrageous rom-coms that simplify its concept into nothing more touching than two attractive people gradually coming to overlook their personalities in favor of physical attraction. It is a disgraceful poisoning of what love is and means and if it wasn't for the beautiful and painful love stories of modern Asian cinema I might believe that love had died. Two Lovers recognizes that we all act like fools when we're smitten, but it also understands that nothing on Earth is as deadly serious. We see Leonard's awkwardness when he spots Michelle entering a restaurant and reaches for a menu to look nonchalant, but he does no do so in a pantomime manner. Pronouncements of love are not delivered in grandiose speeches but in cautious, mumbled admissions, the sort of panicked whisper normally used for interrogation room confessions.
While Gray's screenplay and direction sets the film apart from the host of vacuous romantic films dominating the American market, Two Lovers succeeds ultimately, of course, on the strength of its actors. Paltrow, never one of my favorites, is devastating as Michelle, trapped between the horror of her current life and the terrifying risk of starting a new one. Shaw has the least screen time of the protagonists, but she makes every second count, her beautiful smile always flecked with a hint of sadness as she attempts to break through to Leonard. As for Phoenix, well, I never bought his absurd hullabaloo over his "retirement" from acting and always considered it a hoax. Now, I fervently hope that's the case: without ever forcing himself, he perfectly captures the essence of a man suffering from mild mental illness: he mumbles and rushes his words to hurry through conversations before he makes a "mistake," hides from the view of others and is subject to the whims of his mercurial mood shifts. His downbeat mania is nothing short of hypnotic. Also worth mentioning is Isabella Rossellini as Leonard's mother: forces are constantly pushing Sanda and Leonard together for business reasons, but when Ruth tells her son that she just wants him to be happy she's more genuine than 99% of all the other screen mothers who've said the same thing over the years.
I dare not write much more on Two Lovers, as written descriptions do no justice to its emotional impact. I will say, however, that anyone who finds its ending "happy" is a cockeyed optimist. The people who find Two Lovers ultimately happy are the same people who found the ending if A.I. sentimental, and actually they're not that different: in both films, a character's deepest wish comes true, but it's undercut with the horrible dread of its intimated hollowness. The three main characters of Two Lovers are all doomed in their own way, and they reflect better than any romantic film in recent memory the searing pain of a failed relationship.