By Karina Longworth
I don’t entirely buy James Gray’s “Two Lovers,” and typing this having just walked out of the far superior “Un conte de Noël,” I feel strange even praising it. I freely admit that even as certain elements are effectively thrilling in their depiction of tortured passion, it’s all put to the service of a narrative that is occasionally offensive in its total lack of surprise. But, but, but: after dozing on and off for the film’s first twenty or thirty minutes, I awoke to see Joaquin Phoenix breakdancing his way into the arms of Gwyneth Paltrow, and for whatever reason, from that point on I was sort of into it. About an hour later I became totally sucked in, when that moment of dance floor silliness met its dissonant counterpoint with a second, far more desperate scene of Phoenix dancing his way into Paltrow’s arms. It’ll be too little too late for some, but in its final third, “Two Lovers” becomes an extremely strong parable about the madness of romantic love, and maybe even its impossibility.
That scene…it looks like a classic romantic high, until you realize that there’s almost no color on the screen beyond the white-gold wisps of Paltrow’s windblown hair dusting the frame. It hits you that the characters think that what they’re doing is going to save them both when in fact (and maybe this is where the generic story arc becomes a bonus), we know it’s only going to make everything worse. It’s bleak. It’s beautiful.
“Two Lovers” is implicitly concerned (and this should be familiar to most New Yorkers) with the way romantic relationships give us an opportunity to slide back and forth across class lines. Both Paltrow and Phoenix play adults who allow older men to pay their rent. For Paltrow, it’s a stock slimeball married guy who keeps her, a well-bred bad girl, stashed in an apartment in The Old Neighborhood––part easy alibi (his mama lives nearby), part obvious fetishistic class regression/emotional slumming (his mama lives near by). In Phoenix’s case, the older man is his father, an Israeli-born dry cleaner who wants to ensure his own comfortable retirement by making sure his wannabe photographer son hooks up with the daughter of a business partner. Too bad Phoenix is constantly running off to answer text messages from Paltrow, whose bought-and-paid-for pad is visible from Phoenix’s childhood window.
Leonard begins relationships with both women simultaneously, and much of the film is devoted to the ways in which he immerses himself in the pleasures offered by one to ameliorate the disappointments of the other. The dry cleaner’s daughter (Vinessa Shaw) says she wants to “take care” of Phoenix, but she probably shouldn’t––at worst creepily unstable and at best just something of a bore, he’s a 30 year-old boy who has moved back in with the ‘rents after a failed engagement and at least one suicide attempt. In turn, Paltrow (more impressive than she has been in years cast against type as a roiling ball of need) exploits Leonard’s proximity (emotional, physical) as a salve for the constant pain wrought by her married boyfriend’s distance.
The film’s tone can be fatally contradictory, and it’s hard to say whether Gray thinks that his obviously troubled protagonist’s ability to seduce two gorgeous women (and, most problematically, that he stuns both ladies into a state of love via swift administration of his dick) makes for comedy or tragedy. It doesn’t help that Phoenix himself, starting at the moment of seduction and carrying through to the end of each scene, seems like he’s playing a completely different person. A comment on the transformative nature of sexual attraction, or inconsistent filmmaking?
I can’t decide, but ultimately, I didn’t mind. In the film’s second to last shot, Phoenix locks a single, tortured eye on the camera from behind the embrace of the woman who he’s just, by default, given a diamond ring. It’s a single shot that undercuts any possibility that this apparent traditional romantic happy ending is in fact what it seems. It would be difficult to look at that image and still believe that anyone in this movie has actually been in “real” love since they stepped on screen, to not feel a cynical, momentary jolt that romantic love itself is never really more than a collision of circumstance and impulse, a way of taking care of a need via the most readily available means. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but that’s not to say it doesn’t bear repeating.