Friday Editor’s Pick: Two Lovers (2008)

by on August 19, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Aug 26 at 2:00, 7:00 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Q&A with director James Gray at 7:00 show


BAMcinématek celebrates the 10th birthday of superstar indie distributor Magnolia Pictures with a guest-heavy week of their best and most notable releases, Wednesday August 24th to 31st.


Back in April, billionaire media mogul Mark Cuban announced that he and his partner, Todd Wagner, were looking to sell Magnolia Pictures along with Landmark Theaters (yup, they own that too). We can’t help but wonder if this revival is optimistically aimed at raising the company’s valuation and securing its studio heads even greater creative leverage, or if it’s nostalgically celebrating past achievements in the face of an uncertain, even unpromising future. (The answer is probably both, and also neither.) But here’s one thing we’re sure of: it’s a great line-up.


We had almost picked and highly recommend today’s other Magnolia movie: Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuously Sirk-ian throwback starring Tilda Swinton, I Am Love [4:30, 9:40]. But with director James Gray in the house to discuss his tale of a melancholic ménage à trois and Brighton Beach ennui, we couldn’t resist choosing Two Lovers. Now that Lover-boy himself Joaquin Phoenix has given up the act and returned to what he does best (currently filming with P.T. Anderson), the squirrely thespian’s star turn here can no longer be billed as his “final performance,” but it remains a hell of a lot more interesting than his poorly conceived “performance art.”


Michael Tully raves “I am positively in love with this movie!” at Hammer to Nail:

With Two Lovers, Gray leaves the weaponry and violence behind to focus solely on conflicts of the heart. Though the story itself is simple, Gray turns it into something operatic by merging several conflicting elements into one unified whole: classic vs. modern, happy vs. sad, dramatic vs. humorous, plausible vs. implausible, hopeful vs. hopeless. The resulting tone feels like no other American picture of even somewhat recent memory. For some, the impact will be jarringly anachronistic at best, and downright silly at worst. But for viewers who are tired of lackadaisical storytelling and ironic detachment in modern American cinema, who have been yearning for a filmmaker who can bridge the past and the present and who isn’t afraid to expose his heart and soul and really reach for something, Two Lovers is going to reawaken many long dormant senses.


This all begins with Gray’s influences, which range from the distant past to the very distant past: Dostoevsky’s original novella White Nights, which was in turn adapted for the screen by Visconti in 1957; also, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, which is referenced, quite literally, in the film’s closing moments. Yet while Gray’s directorial vision harks back to a different place and time, he nonetheless depicts 21st Century New York with flawless accuracy. From the upscale midtown environs around Lincoln Center, to the posh club life that has devoured the Meatpacking district high heel by high heel, to the bleak, colorless landscape of Brighton Beach in the winter, Gray has modern New York City pinned (and yet, somehow, he still manages to make it feel like a fable).



Scott Foundas for LA Weekly, in a feature and interview with Gray worth reading in full:

Two Lovers, not only signaled a departure from the realm of cops and robbers but seemed to me the work of a mature, sensitive artist in total control of his craft. Two Lovers is an unexpectedly delicate romantic drama that charts the gradually deepening affection of two damaged people: Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix again), a depressive young man recovering from a suicide attempt, and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the beautiful legal secretary who moves into Leonard’s Brighton Beach apartment building.


Leonard’s dry-cleaner parents have taken to pressing him into courtship with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the proverbial nice Jewish girl; Michelle, meanwhile, has put too much faith in the married lawyer (Elias Koteas) who claims he’s going to leave his family for her. Through a series of exquisitely tender, unhurried exchanges, these lonely strangers come to see in each other the chance for a new beginning. And while it would surely be expecting too much for Gray to make a movie in which everyone lives happily ever after, Two Lovers is the first of his films that allows sustained passages of pleasure and hope amid the gloom — a reminder that even the Bard managed to bestow upon his tragedy-prone characters moments of grace and comic relief.


Daniel Kasman for Mubi:

James Gray has exactly what American cinema needs—sincerity. Gray deals in melodrama—and male melodrama at that—but treats it with a solemn seriousness that makes one believe again in the earnestness of American genre cinema. Rooted in place (Queens, New York), milieu (ethnic urban families), and social bonds of family, heart, and loyalty, Gray’s cinema is poised to make us all remember the reason why international audiences ate up Hollywood films of the 1930s—a heartfelt vision of one’s society, coded in style and basic human psychology. Two Lovers is neither as epic as The Yards nor as coiled and insular as We Own the Night, but its practically immediate release after Gray’s last film—”immediate” compared to the near decade long gap between the last two—excuses all. Finally we see what it is like when Gray makes films regularly rather than sporadically, and the result is just as rich.


The film moves broadly but with strength, and is very moving. Like the final line of We Own the Night, the conclusion of Two Lovers achieves a brutal, heartfelt admission whose triumph is its utter believability and commitment. Indeed, only on witnessing such powerful belief in the seriousness of human emotion and conflict does one see how frivolous much of cinema really is.



Michael Joshua Rowin for L Mag:

Two Lovers is so rich that at first I dismissed its title as the film’s one mistake, an unimaginatively obvious story pitch. And yet, like the whole of James Gray’s masterpiece, it’s deceptively simple and strangely ambiguous.


Refusing to court sentimentality but unabashedly evoking compassion, Leonard in Phoenix’s hands becomes a complex, paradoxical being. Gray and Phoenix realize Leonard’s being in ways writ small and large, in the way he rips a sticker on a pole while waiting for Michelle outside a club, in the way he confesses his feelings for her on the roof of their building, a cold gray sky and gusting wind surrounding them as Gray’s camera intensely yet delicately tracks in. It’s one thing to pen such moments and another to direct them: Gray gets the best out of Phoenix because he knows Leonard is as likely to express his confusion in an undisguised pout as in a display of tortured sensitivity, in a hushed phone conversation as in a declaration of love — in other words, in an emotional register varied and surprising. Recent years have seen the American indie timidly dance around the messiness of romance by offering characters superficially eccentric, glibly ironic, or falsely “awkward.” Fitting for a film as devastatingly true as Two Lovers — a film that argues against easily understood emotions and decisions — that its completely real protagonist should equal, and define, the story.


Alt Screen’s Dan Callahan for Slant:

The buried themes in James Gray’s fourth film, Two Lovers, slowly emerge from its accumulation of quotidian, seemingly small details. After impulsively jumping off a bridge in the first scene, misfit Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) enters a cozy apartment in Brighton Beach, still wet, and we see Isabella Rossellini’s Ruth in the dining room. The casting here is key. I assumed she was playing Phoenix’s slightly older girlfriend, but when it becomes clear that the helplessly sexy Rossellini is playing Phoenix’s mother, Two Lovers resoundingly inaugurates a sensitive investigation into what can only be termed the key problem of Generation X, which is leaving the nest and defining oneself away from the seductiveness of baby-boomer parents.


Trying to get warm after jumping in the river, Leonard desperately puts his cold hands near the top of a radiator, in close-up, and this shot carries a lot of naked desperation, especially when we see how it matches up with a later shot where the love-besotted Leonard bends down to kiss Michelle, who has her eyes closed, and can’t bring himself to put his lips on hers but just stands there, hovering in an ecstasy of pain and deep, withheld emotion. Phoenix makes Leonard a lispy, sub-Brando savant, both special and somehow ordinary, longing for Paltrow’s WASP femme fatale because he thinks that he can finally grow up if he has to take care of someone else’s problems for a change. Leonard is hilarious and very lovable when he tries to impress Michelle by attempting a handstand on the dance floor, and he does make a valiant effort to escape that serving fork lying near the pickles in his indestructible Brighton Beach womb/prison, but his fate is preordained, and his last-minute adjustments to it are quietly admirable. If the ending feels a bit rushed, it nevertheless ambiguously caps another unusually subterranean movie from an extremely distinctive director.



Andrew O’hehir for Salon:

Although this film is set in the 21st century and has the cell phones and hip-hop music to prove it, Gray’s portrait of Jewish middle-class life in Brooklyn has a timeless, recurring-dream quality, both in ways he intends and (I suspect) in ways beyond his conscious control. Change the clothes, the cars and the extras, and you could tell the same story in 1975, or 1955. Leonard’s parents — wonderfully played by Isabella Rossellini and the Israeli actor Moni Moshonov — are immigrants, figures from the Old World, temporally and culturally cut off from Leonard’s rootless American existence. (Merely by her presence, Rossellini suggests another Old World connection, to the heritage of European cinema.)


In almost any other imaginable movie that tackled this material — incipient dry-cleaning monarch plus meddlesome Jewish mother plus good-girl-from-nice-family plus blonde hottie — it would come out either as farce or as romantic comedy, played with exaggerated nasal accents. Gray’s peculiar accomplishment here is to turn this story into an intense emotional drama, beautifully photographed and profoundly ambiguous, suspended somewhere between realism and psychosexual allegory. I said earlier that “Two Lovers” was about a romantic triangle, but it’s really some other shape, a rectangle or a rhombus, with Leonard’s mother, watching over him like a worried lioness, as the fourth limb. Most miraculous of all, while the story has a mythic, almost inevitable quality, its characters are complicated and uncertain, in ways you often encounter in life but rarely or never do in American movies.


Andrew Chan for Reverse Shot:

The sense of being an outsider—to family, culture, and one’s own generation—is what haunts Leonard, though it’s probably a blessing for the film that he isn’t self-reflective enough to articulate his troubles or have us psychologize them. Joaquin Phoenix has repeatedly played this same role for Gray, who has developed through their three films together a formula for lighting his star’s face in the most dramatic fashion: with shadows obscuring those deep-set eyes. But in Two Lovers, this stock character no longer feels like a mere construction or abstraction. The surprise of Phoenix’s performance is how it transcends his usual wan, pathetic act—which at its worst calls to mind whiny male rockers of the early ’00s (remember Staind and Cold?)—and finally earns his career-long comparisons to Montgomery Clift. In what he has hinted might be his final role, Phoenix injects a freewheeling humor and openness that helps us forget how Leonard began the movie trying to drown himself. But like Clift, he remains emotionally unpredictable, sometimes slurring and stumbling over his words, or speaking in a barely audible mumble that suggests childlike fragility or insanity.


Is there any other young American director this committed to exploring the many permutations of “I love you,” and to capturing how those words disturb the air, increase the stakes, and operate as both balm and threat? What recent American film has extended more sympathy to the preposterous ways we reach out to understand and be understood? Like Todd Solondz or Neil LaBute, Gray aims to make us squeamish about being in our own human flesh, but he never subscribes wholesale to the values of those two misanthropes. While Leonard’s painfully awkward sweet-nothings may constitute one of the film’s most unforgettable (as well as most truthful) emotional gross-outs, Two Lovers never provides enough distance between audience and protagonist for us to turn Leonard into a spectacle or develop a superior or detached attitude toward his actions. Perhaps it only makes sense then that, at the film’s moment of greatest repulsion, I finally surrendered to it.



David Phelps sees more Gray parallels with Jerry Lewis than just the whole French thing, also for Mubi:

At Cannes, Americans panned the film because the dialogue’s bad: true if you take it at face value; which is like taking Albert Brooks’ dialogue at face value, instead of as a cringe-causing “parody” (that’s not) of what people say to each other for the sake of saying something to each other, what stupid jokes people pass the time making during dinner, or when they run into each other on the subway. But the point of the dialogue throughout is its inadequacy to express anything; Gray is an actor’s director—he is in their service, and lights in flesh tones—so the real expressions are all facial. As in the old melodramas, but also as in real life, Gray’s actors speak in grins, down-turned eyes, and the blind, drunken groping of people sick of being themselves.


Because it’s a film in which nobody is quite sure what to say or how to say it. Two Lovers starts like an Albert Brooks film starring Jerry Lewis, here Phoenix (easily mistaken for normal by everyone within the film), a man-child who’s moved back in with his parents and only knows how to communicate with the world by crying for its attention. As it turns out, he’s a photographer frightened as hell of dealing with the outside world, and, with little ado, Gray again and again shows him hiding and watching from shadows and behind closed doors; the main points of reference here are Rear Window and, to a lesser extent, Vertigo, those films about men who would rather watch the world as distant fantasy universe, but find their fantasies springing into full-blooded life. “I feel like I never really saw you before,” Phoenix’s fantasy (Gwyneth Paltrow, superbly un-superb) tells him after they finally hook up, and what she means is that the central character of the movie is just ficelli to her drama (not only does she have two lovers—her other lover does too; none of them really care about each other’s dilemmas). But then he tells her he’s never seen her either (and she begins to strip). Comfortably set in a world of text messaging and drunk-dialing, Two Lovers captures something that obsessed Hitchcock, but who else?: how people relegate each other to simplified roles in their lives (demons, confidants, other fantasy objects), without seeing what’s really there. Even as they watch and watch and watch. Because like Hamlet, L. B. Jefferies, and Jerry Lewis, Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor is, ultimately—if not at the end—just an actor afraid to act, undone by self-consciousness. He’s one of Shakespeare’s or Tashlin’s fools


Anthony Lane
for the New Yorker:

“Two Lovers” is not a happy film. Nor would you expect it to be, given that it springs in part from a Dostoyevsky story called “White Nights.” Leonard and Michelle, in particular, are lumbered with so much baggage that they seem more like pack animals than like functioning citizens. “I think he tried again,” Leonard’s mother says, as he returns dripping from the river; “I think she might be using again,” Ronald (Elias Koteas) says of Michelle, who feels the lure of drugs. Ronald is what used to be called a sugar daddy; he pays for her apartment, and for services rendered, thereby insuring that she loathes herself for being unable to kick the sugar. No loyalty goes undivided here. Leonard has a heart to match his mind, split between two women (although you sometimes want to ask what they see in him, and why some guys get all the luck); Michelle calls him “my new best friend,” but can’t picture him as anything more serious, preferring the oily Ronald; even Leonard’s mother sees that what is right for her son can tug and tear at what is good for him. She is played by Isabella Rossellini, no less, and, toward the end, there are a couple of expressions in that captivating gaze of hers which are so brimful of love, understanding, and pity that you hardly know where to turn. On paper, I imagine, Gray’s final scene would read like a peaceful solution, but his camera is wiser, scanning the apartment and catching a character’s eye, and were the director to return to the fray in five years’ time I doubt whether the update would be one of bliss. However moody, though, “Two Lovers” didn’t strike me as a downer, for the simple reason that it wells with sights and sounds that are guaranteed to lift, not sink, the spirits—two drifting souls embracing on a rooftop, in a scatter of snow, or Leonard, basically a boy from the sticks, visiting midtown Manhattan to the strains of Henry Mancini. I don’t think that bit was in Dostoyevsky, but I could be wrong.


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