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:: Two Lovers

In light of his recent work in Two Lovers, I would like to extend an urgent plea to Joaquin Phoenix…please, please, please, don’t throw in the acting for a rapping career. It makes absolutely no sense. In this film, which is hopefully not his last, Phoenix gives the performance of his career. He plays Leonard Kraditor, an awkward, unstable bi-polar sufferer who, in the opening scenes of the film, tries to drown himself in a half-hearted way by toppling off a pier in his native Brighton Beach. After being rescued, he trudges home to his parents’ cozy apartment, sodden, bedraggled and forlorn. Leonard’s parents, Ruth (Isabella Rossellini) and Reuben (Israeli actor Moni Moshonov) keep a justifiably watchful eye on their son. He’s living back home after a previous suicide attempt, the result of a broken heart, left him in a psych hospital.

A ray of light comes shining through Leonard’s fog with the arrival of his new neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). This willowy, golden-haired goddess is about as screwed up as Leonard and he rapidly becomes obsessed with her. She’s emotionally needy, with an incessant desire for validation which would drive anyone who wasn’t in love with her absolutely nuts. Most importantly, she’s living in the drab Brighton Beach apartment complex because her married lover (Elias Koteas) is keeping her there on ice while he decides whether or not to leave his wife. The second lover of the title presents a complete antithesis to Michelle. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is the daughter of a family friend who has a crush on Leonard and thinks that The Sound of Music is “underrated”. Leonard’s parents rather unsubtly nudge him towards her, especially as their union would be good for the family dry cleaning business. Knowing Leonard’s history, Sandra gently reveals her feelings for him as he in turn becomes increasingly distracted by Michelle.

Don’t be fooled by what may sound like a movie-of-the week melodrama. Two Lovers is anything but. Based loosely on Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights, writer-director James Gray (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night) has created a beautiful, intimate, understated film which examines the pitfalls and complexities of love in all of their heartbreaking reality. The two lovers each represent the divided loyalties which Leonard experiences in his inner, as well as his outer, everyday life. He is torn between a longing to escape his parents’ claustrophobic domesticity and his filial obligation to them. Michelle - spontaneous, free and the object of his desire, represents the former, while Sandra - secure, motherly and devoted, represents the latter.

The film is beautifully shot, with the cinematographer’s palette firmly restricted to the shades of a Brooklyn winter. Gray has favoured close-ups and interior scenes, further reiterating the intimacy of the setting. The viewer is also given a glimpse into Jewish suburbia, with its associated parties and rituals. The only colour comes in the form of the occasional excursions into the neon glamour of Manhattan. The handful of times that Leonard enters this privileged and unattainable world, he looks uncomfortable and out of place. After an excruciatingly awkward scene in an up market restaurant with Michelle and her lover, Leonard leaves the happy couple, who are on their way to the opera, and heads home to enjoy the only version of opera that he can afford – on CD. The aria that he happens on is sung by Liu, the lovesick slave from Puccini’s Turandot. The parallels are obvious!

The low key performances are at the heart of what makes this film so successful. Phoenix, who ate rubbish food to bulk up for the role, is completely unglamorous as Leonard. He wears daggy sweaters, and lurches around with an unsettling nervous energy. As Gray said in a recent interview, “Joaquin and I wanted the movie to embrace this character and to love him for all his flaws. Ultimately, even though his behaviour is exaggerated and at times downright absurd, he is still like us. We didn't want to look down on people or condescend.”

Gwyneth Paltrow, who has proven her ability to act pretty and fragile in The Royal Tenenbaums, excels in this role, ensuring that Michelle’s tearful outbursts remain realistic enough to avoid from melodrama. It doesn’t mean that you want to slap her any less, but still…Vinessa Shaw is also very convincing as the lovelorn Sandra.

Two Lovers will leave you needing a bottle of red wine and some hearty winter soup, but the unexpected ending means that you won’t feel totally bereft and hopeless when all is said and done.