Two Lovers (2008)

Directed by James Gray

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Two Lovers almost feels too predictable.  It’s a love story that’s not too concerned with the plot points, but maybe that’s giving the story too much credit.  I guess what I can say is that I found Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) much more interesting than the type of character you’d expect to find in such a love story.

The other characters, the two ‘lovers,’ (played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw) are either more riddled with cliches or not given enough screen time, so despite its title, this is a story concerned with one man.

And Joaquin Phoenix, I think, is a great actor, particularly when it comes to portraying wounded characters.  Maybe it’s just his raspy voice or sense of shyness that seems to bond each of his roles, but he comes across as a tragic figure.  In Two Lovers, what haunts him is a failed engagement (due to circumstances out of his control), and as a result of that pain he has retreated into himself as well as to his parents apartment in Brooklyn.

In a movie like The Master, Phoenix’s pain has made him unstable, a threat to those around him as much as to himself, but in movies like Woody Allen’s Irrational Man or Spike Jonze’s Her, Phoenix plays a man similar to Leonard.  He’s hurt, and he has trouble putting into words why he’s hurt or what to do in response to that pain.

And pretty quickly Leonard is given a form of salvation through Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a woman his parents want to set him up with.  She’s kind in a way Leonard doesn’t seem used to, and she takes an interest in him that might come across as a form of pity, but pretty soon it’s clear she genuinely likes him.

Sandra’s arrival in the picture feels almost as unbelievable as any excessive use of CGI in a superhero movie.  We see Leonard attempt to kill himself, we know he’s sad, and almost immediately a blessing walks into his home.  Then, just as quickly, another woman, Michelle (Paltrow), walks into his life as well, and suddenly Leonard has a choice to make.

At least, that’s what we think.  Again, the movie is called Two Lovers, and we’ve just met both of them, but the movie spends much more time with Leonard and Michelle than it does with him and Sandra.  Michelle is made to be unpredictable in a cliched way, and she keeps Leonard close as a friend and nothing more.  He makes it clear to her he’d like to be more, but you see, Michelle’s got a boyfriend, a married man, and she’s hoping he’ll leave his family.

This is a character dynamic that feels more ingrained in other movies than it does in real life.  Michelle herself hardly feels real, just the accumulation of characteristics from other movies.  Sandra, in contrast, feels very real, though I think that’s just because of the juxtaposition of her serenity compared to the storm Sandra brings with her.

But Leonard is obsessed with Sandra.  He claims to love her, but it’s pretty clear that he just needs to love her, considering the large hole in his life he’s likely felt ever since his previous engagement ended.  As a man looking to commit suicide (for what we’re told is not the first time), he needs anything to give him a reason to live, and that reason is Michelle.  But Leonard’s love for her is desperate and forced, as inauthentic as Michelle herself is as a character.

It’s a little tough to tell how we’re supposed to feel about Leonard.  As the wounded man he is, it seems like we’re meant to empathize with him, but soon his behavior starts to feel erratic, and his passion for Michelle, to me, felt cringe-worthy.  From my perspective, Sandra seemed great.  I mean, just a really swell person, you know?  She comes from a nice family, and she seems genuinely interesting in Leonard, though I have to admit that I’m not sure where that interest comes from.  It’s really just because she isn’t Michelle that I liked her so much.

So when Leonard continues to abandon Sandra, you might find yourself getting more angry with him.  It’s not just that he’s in pain, but he’s now hurting other people.  It’s just that Sandra never seems to show the levels of pain I think she would really feel given Leonard’s treatment of her.  And that’s actually kind of frustrating.

Leonard is in such pain, and yet we can see, I think, that he’s got a pretty good situation which he’s actively throwing away.  And so we’re supposed to be frustrated.  We want to help Leonard, but he can’t even help himself, and I think that’s the point.  When someone is in as rough a patch as Leonard is, you want to do everything you can, but they can’t fully get better until they’re ready.  And here’s where I start to get into territory I’m not fully equipped to talk about.

So Leonard… he makes a foolish plan to run away with Michelle, and of course we know this plan won’t come to pass.  On New Year’s Eve, Leonard tosses his bag out the window like he’s breaking out of jail (and not just leaving a place he’s free to leave), and I think this moment, more than any other, shows how disconnected Leonard is with reality.  He’s prepared to run away from his parents, his entire life, and yet when his mother catches him (played by Isabella Rossellini in a small-ish role), she says she’s happy as long as he’s happy, which he says he is.

When Michelle tells him she can’t go (her married boyfriend is getting divorced), Leonard goes to the ocean where we think he might try to end it all again.  He throws away the ring he’d wanted to use to propose to Michelle, but after a moment of contemplation he returns to the party (where no one questions why he’s been gone so long), and arrives to Sandra’s welcoming embrace.

Leonard proposes to her, and she accepts, not realizing that his tears are meant for another woman.

The best part of Two Lovers is the end, and that’s usually kind of hard to achieve, I think.  It starts off with somewhat of a whimper, introducing us to an almost improbably sad character in almost improbably kind circumstances.  The point isn’t to demonstrate the authenticity of this character or this world, but just to establish a situation in which someone can’t see a good thing coming.

The final image, of the awkward embrace between a sad man and his somewhat comically clueless fiancee is… well a bit tragic.  This is certainly not a happy ending, though I was relieved to see Leonard with Sandra, like she could save him eventually, even if he doesn’t yet realize it.  And I think that point of view is the same one Leonard has.  He only turns to Sandra as a safety net, someone who can literally hold onto him as he starts to slip…

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…or maybe he’s holding onto her.  Maybe they’re both slipping, and she’s in just as much pain as he is.  Maybe they’re holding onto each other, and that’s all you can ask for in life.

I don’t know, but what I do know is that the two relationships that are still standing at the end, Leonard & Sandra as well as Michelle & her previously married boyfriend, don’t feel like they’re starting on firm ground.  Just as Leonard has been unfairly cruel (through negligence) of Sandra, even if she doesn’t know it, Michelle has been treated with just as much negligence, certainly more actually, by her boyfriend, and yet she sticks with him.

Two Lovers is about Leonard and Michelle, two equally pained characters who latch onto the person closest to them, ignoring that it might be each other.  Their respective behavior is infuriating which makes me think that they should both be together and never see each other again.

What I like most about this movie is that it takes a familiar story structure (man chooses between two women) and slathers it up with some real tragic subtext.  On the surface this is a love story, but it ends with an embrace that feels as cold as any I’ve seen in a movie recently.  Sure there is warmth there as Sandra comforts Leonard, but we’ve just seen how little Sandra seems to mean to him, and he can’t even acknowledge his fear of isolation before responding so strongly to it.

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