This is a masterly film. Very simple, very direct and sincere, a movie that is simply about love, perhaps the most difficult subject any filmmaker can address.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor. In the movie’s first images, we see him trudging home over a foot-bridge across the bay. He has dry cleaning in his hands. The bag carries the motto, "We Heart Our Customers". Leonard drops the dry cleaning, climbs up on the rail, and lets go, falling deep down into the water. But the suicidal impulse doesn’t last. He fights his way back to the surface and is pulled back on to the bridge. He barely thanks the man who pulls him out, returns home to the apartment he shares with his mom and dad (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) and shrugs off their dismay at the puddles beneath his shoes.
This is Leonard. He’s on anti-depressants and he’s tried suicide before. Yet he seems lively, an intelligent and alert individual. He’s funny, creative, flirtatious with women. He sees himself as a photographer, or hopes to be one, but for now he’s working in his father’s dry-cleaning store. The old man is planning to retire, after merging the firm with the Cohen family’s enterprise. The Cohens and the Kraditors would dearly like for Leonard and Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw) to hit it off, to fall in love, marry and seal the deal.
And here’s the thing: Leonard and Sandra do like each other. They make a good couple.
But at the same time as he’s playing along, rather ambivalently, with Sandra’s advances, Len is falling head over heals in love with the blonde in the apartment across from his bedroom window. Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is one of those uptown girls, a lawyer’s assistant, beautiful, cultured, accustomed to a better class of things. She’s also dabbling in drugs, and caught up in an affair with a married man (Elias Koteas).
So there you have it: Sandra loves Leonard who loves Michelle who loves Ronald. As simple, and as complicated, as that.
Joaquin Phoenix is immensely sympathetic in this film, an ordinary guy struggling to escape the confines of his own destiny – as it’s been shaped by his family and his surroundings. For sure Sandra is a suitable choice for him – we may even like her more than Michelle – but love isn’t sensible in that way. Michelle makes his heart beat in a way Sandra just doesn’t.
This is Phoenix’s third film with writer director James Gray, after The Yards and We Own The Night. I like them all, and We Own the Night especially (it’s the same film, at least the same theme, essentially), but Two Lovers seems to me the most assured and accomplished yet. A loose adaptation of Dostoyevski’s “White Nights”, this one owes the least to Gray’s time in the cinema stalls, to old movies and genre films… It uses an expressive cinematic language with rare subtlety and eloquence.
Unlike so many melodramas it doesn’t prod us into taking sides, and Gray doesn’t soup it up or sentimentalize – he even gets away with harp music on the soundtrack, his touch is so light.
It’s a film for grown ups and no apologies, an exploration of the foibles of the human heart that will ring true to anyone who has been in love, for better or for worse. And if this review is more love letter than critique, I’ll make no apologies for that either. The system doesn’t produce too many like this one.
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