James Gray’s “Two Lovers” (2008)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (In Competition), London, AFI Fest

Shortly after the release of his third feature, WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007), director James Gray was surprised to see his latest project gain funding in only four months—a timespan exponentially faster than he was used to.  Most of this was off the strength of his previous films, while credit could also go to frequent collaborator Joaquin Phoenix’s rising star.  In 2008, Gray released TWO LOVERS, a brooding meditation on mental instability and its effect on the trappings of a romantic drama.

As his most recently-released film, TWO LOVERS is also one of his best—if not the best.  After the larger-scale set-pieces required by the crime drama conventions of his last film, Gray is now able to tone down the outside noise and zero in on the big implications of even the slightest of gestures.  TWO LOVERS is a quiet, insightful work—the kind that doesn’t get made by Hollywood anymore.  But most importantly, it’s a film that shows an already-mature director growing comfortably into a master of his craft.

Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix—arguably Gray’s closest collaborator) is a hapless young man who lives in a decrepit Brighton Beach apartment with his parents and works in their dry cleaning shop.  His battles with being bipolar complicate his social standing and make him volatile and unpredictable.  When the film begins, Leonard is still nursing the wounds of an engagement-turned-south, which forced him to move back home and regress into a state of arrested development.  His well-meaning parents introduce him to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a beautiful young woman and daughter to one of Leonard’s father’s business partners.  Sandra is gentle, yet persistent, and soon enough the two embark on a quiet, tender romance—just the kind that Leonard needs in his life right now.

However, one day Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), another tenant in his apartment complex.  She’s fiery, loud and emotionally unavailable.  Leonard finds himself energized by her presence, and is compelled to pursue her romantically. Leonard juggles these two romances, blind to the fact that Michelle is completely wrong for him and will never truly be his. All the while, his relationship with Sandra begins to falter as he becomes more distant.  Soon enough, Leonard finds himself in the unenviable position of having to choose between passion and true love, and either choice will bring disastrous consequences.

Because TWO LOVERS is such a quiet, introspective film, the impact of the story falls to the quality of the performances. Gray has proven himself to be a skilled director of actors—mainly due to his preference for character-driven storylines—and his fourth feature exceeds expectations.  Phoenix eschews the braggadocio of his last collaboration with Gray to portray Leonard as a lovesick, wounded animal.  He’s sensitive and quiet, but there’s an emotional storm brewing inside of him. When we first meet him, it’s during an unsuccessful suicide attempt that leaves him more ashamed than he was going in. He’s the type of person who, either consciously or not, pursues self-damaging experiences.  Deep down, even he has to know that Michelle will never truly love him, but he goes for it anyway.

Leonard also takes photographs for a hobby, and it’s telling that he prefers to shoot landscapes devoid of people.  It suggests a deliberate social disconnect with others, and further illustrates Leonard’s eternal state of isolation.  It’s very rare that I find myself directly connecting with a character in the film, but I saw more of myself in Leonard than I would like to admit.  Without getting too personal, there was a cynical period in my early twenties that saw me pursuing the kinds of women who were all kinds of wrong for me.  Of course I always knew better, but there was some deep-seated desire to get burned anyway.  Leonard’s avoidance of people as his subjects suggests a fear of direct confrontation that I could sympathize with at some level.  It’s a testament to Phoenix’s skill as an actor that I saw so much of myself in his character (albeit a now-more-distant, former version of myself).

Of course, any discussion of TWO LOVERS wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the event that threatened to overshadow the film completely.  It’s been discussed, mulled over, and criticized countless ways, so I promise not to add too much more to the clutter.  At the time of the film’s release, Phoenix was undergoing his very-public “transformation”.  He showed up to the film’s premiere hiding behind dark sunglasses and a shaggy, unkempt beard, with the word “GOOD BYE!” stamped on his knuckles.  He took the opportunity to announce his retirement from acting, proclaiming that TWO LOVERS was his “last film ever” (indeed, promotional materials on the home video release of the film tout this as a big selling point). He then proceeded to butcher every promotional appearance he made for TWO LOVERS, doing them all in character as his new persona.  Check out his infamous appearance on Letterman to see what I mean:

Five years later, Phoenix has returned to acting, and his public “mental breakdown” was revealed to be just another character he was playing for Casey Affleck’s “documentary”, I’M STILL HERE (2010).  While I applaud the dedication Phoenix applied towards his years-long physical transformation, I’m sorry to see a brilliant film like TWO LOVERS get overshadowed in its wake.  If Gray himself wasn’t in on the joke, I can only imagine that there were some very terse words exchanged between the two in the days following the film’s release.

All of this (necessary) talk about Phoenix comes at the peril of ignoring the other performers.  As Sandra, Shaw brings a gentle, unconventionally attractive presence to the film.  She is the beauty that is always overlooked, despite always being there.  It’s clear very early on that she’s a perfect match for Leonard, and we ache alongside her as he grows more distant. Paltrow, on the other hand, is perfect as the kind of person who has regard only for herself, at the expense of others.  She flits into the film in a burst of energy, and her wild, unpredictable nature combined with her natural elegance easily makes her the object of many’s affections.  Known primarily for her tendency to take on glossy, “safe” Hollywood roles, Paltrow takes a huge risk here as an inherently ugly, self-centered person.  She assumes a cynical optimism that Leonard instantly connects with, and because connections to other people are so few and far between, he turns on his logic blinders and goes completely overboard.  Paltrow’s Michelle is the oblivious enabler for all of Leonard’s flaws, so it’s important to the validity of the story that she embraces all the ugly aspects of her character.

Gray’s stories tend to be very insular between the main characters, so the numbers of his supporting characters are conventionally small.  In TWO LOVERS, only three really make an impact.  Moni Moshonov (the big bad from Gray’s WE OWN THE NIGHT) and Isabella Rossellini (daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Robert Rossellini) portray Leonard’s parents. They are strong (at times overbearing) presences in Leonard’s world, but their profound love and caring for their son make themselves known as the story progresses.  They are very much connected to the Old World, as immigrants from Eastern Europe, and introduce Leonard to Sandra in a way that’s not dissimilar from arranged marriages.  These two deliver a pair of quiet, haunting performances that tell us much more about Leonard than he does himself.

Symbolizing the New World, Elias Koteas (one of my favorite character actors) portrays Michelle’s boyfriend, Ronald. Ronald is a slick, successful Manhattan businessman, but there’s a catch—he’s already married with children.  He hides Michelle away in a dumpy apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and ultimately ends up leaving his family for her.  In a film where each character is in some state of delusion, he’s the one who most gives into them (that he’ll be happier with Michelle than his own wife and child).

Four features in, Gray has established an easily identifiable look to his work.  Working again with Director of Photography Joaquin Baca-Asay (Gray loves him some Joaquins), Gray uses his richly-detailed setting and naturalistic high-key lighting setups to create an image with high contrast and muted colors that draw from a soupy palette of browns, yellows, and blacks.  Shooting in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio on 35mm film, Gray brings a very sensual feel to his gritty Brooklyn environs.  His yellow, sodium vapor nights are contrasted by biting blue tones in daytime exteriors.  During this particular viewing of TWO LOVERS (my second), I noticed that Gray’s visual style is a lot like David Fincher’s, except softer.  Both have a level of contrast that implies a hard edge, with colors that, while natural, skew in favor of earth tones and steely blues.

Gray’s camerawork keeps in line with his previous efforts, employing the use of tripods, dollies, and footwork to capture his images.  Like his earlier films, he uses natural framing devices like doors or windows to compose his shot.  However, he also uses these framing devices on a subtle level that communicates his themes.  One example that comes to mind is the scene where Leonard takes Michelle’s phone call during a lunch date with Sandra.  Leonard goes behind a glass door to talk, and Gray frames the image as a close up, observing Phoenix through the window frame.  Interestingly enough, the window isn’t entirely smooth- it has beveled edges that fracture and contort Phoenix’s face, producing a kaleidoscopic effect that reflects Phoenix’s conflicted feelings and self-deceptions.

Other visual techniques within Gray’s repertoire are expanded upon here.  Beginning with his opening titles, Gray finally capitalizes his letters—as to why, I have no clue.  He uses slow motion as a punctuation mark for key plot points, and uses shadow as a potent storytelling tool.  Besides artfully using silhouettes, Gray also chooses to shoot key scenes with actors’ eyes in shadow— thus obscuring their intent and making their true message hard to read.  It’s a fantastic, subtle visual device that I’m glad to see Gray continue using.

Interestingly enough, IMDB doesn’t have a composer listed, and neither does the film’s closing credits.  There is very little music within the film, so it stands out when Gray chooses to incorporate it.  He builds a musical landscape that harkens back to the Old World, albeit a romanticized version of it.  A slow waltz on the Spanish guitar is the main musical ingredient, weaving in and out of various jazz and opera pieces (as well as a few house songs during the nightclub sequence).

With TWO LOVERS, Gray paints an intriguing story about a poor boy in a rich woman’s world.  It’s notable that this is the first time we really see Manhattan in one of Gray’s films.  By doing so, Gray opens up the scope of his cinematic version of the city.  I should also point out that the film’s setting, present day Brighton Beach, calls back to the environs of his debut film, LITTLE ODESSA (1994).  I wouldn’t be surprised to see TWO LOVERS as a well-disguised allegory for Gray’s own experiences as a filmmaker: Starting out as an eager young man looking towards the bright lights of the big city, seduced by the lifestyle and people that live inside it, disillusioned by the emptiness he finds there, and finally realizing the importance of his roots.

It isn’t a coincidence that Leonard is bipolar, either.  Its inclusion in the film suggests a theme of duality that runs throughout.  All of the major players lead a double life, save for the pure (Sandra, Leonard’s family).  This duality creates various perversions of love and clouds judgment.  For instance, look at the stark contrast between the staging of the film’s two sex scenes.  Leonard’s bedroom scene with Sandra is the closest the film gets to a sense of lovemaking: warm lighting, sensual compositions, a pervasive sense of tenderness and awe, etc.  Alternatively, Leonard’s consummation with Michelle on the apartment’s rooftop is fucking: harsh/cold daylight, an observant/distant camera, erratic motions, an urgent sense of desperation.  It’s the film’s single most effective communicator of Leonard’s true chemistry with these two women.  Natural versus forced.

The fact that we realize this, yet the characters don’t, is very telling of Gray’s directorial style.  We’re not meant to intimately connect with these characters, neither are we supposed to judge them.  We dispassionately observe them through the doorways of their apartments, in their places of worship and ritual (symbolized in TWO LOVERS by a Bar Mitzvah), on their good days, on their bad days.  You could argue that this observant approach leaves audiences cold to the story, and it is very possible that this is why Gray hasn’t found a larger following.  Maybe it’s a product of a more cynical age, but it could be argued that the character drama cinema of the 1970s, arguably Gray’s largest wellspring of inspiration, were equally as downbeat.

As I’ve written before, Gray’s characters are outsiders, standing on the banks of the Hudson, looking towards the glittering skyscrapers of Manhattan with hopeful eyes.  You could say the same for Gray.  He stands on the indie fringes of mainstream cinema–not quite obscure but not quite central either—and it’s very clear that he intends to be a great director amidst the ranks of such idols as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.  He already has the allegiance of Hollywood’s top tier talent– if he stays true to his roots, and continues to value craftsmanship and quality over commercialism, he doesn’t have that much farther to go before he secures his place among the greats.

TWO LOVERS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Magnolia Home Entertainment.