FILM REVIEW Andrew M Brown Two Lovers
15 CERT, 110 MINS
Will Two Lovers prove to be Joaquin Phoenix’s final film? The 34year-old Jewish Puerto Rican has announced he is retiring from acting to make hip-hop. In February he made an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. It’s on YouTube. Phoenix wears dark glasses and beard and shows the apprehensiveness and irritability of someone who has suffered mental disruption. He mumbles monosyllables. Letterman winds it up with: “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” At this Phoenix, who has kept a straight face until now, can’t stop himself bursting out laughing. I took that as a hopeful sign.
Whatever his true mental state, it would be a pity if the attention he’s getting for his career as a white rapper threatens to eclipse his brilliant performance in this film. Two Lovers is an unusual kind of picture. Based in part on the Dostoevsky story “White Nights”, about a lonely man who pursues a platonic love affair with a girl he meets in the street, it’s a romantic drama done without smirking or sensation. It avoids the criminal milieu visited by the director James Gray in Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night, though it revisits the Russian Jewish neighbourhood of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn that was the setting of Little Odessa.
Phoenix’s character in Two Lovers, Leonard, definitely has had a crackup. The film opens with Leonard dropping the dry-cleaning he is carrying and throwing himself off a pier in a suicide attempt. He doesn’t stay in the water long, however, and returns soaking wet to his parents’ apartment where he has been staying. It’s an airless, claustrophobia-inducing place cluttered with heavy furniture, lace antimacassars and photographs of old Russians. Straight away we see the devoted frown of Isabella Rosselini, who is full of quiet dignity at key points in the film as Leonard’s mother Ruth, and get a sense of his parents’ frayed nerves. This isn’t Leonard’s first suicide attempt, we learn. He takes medication for bipolar disorder. The camera pauses on his neurotically bittendown fingernails.
There’s something unusual about Leonard. Perhaps it’s his soft voice, or his vulnerability, but beautiful women really like him. Two arrive in quick succession. Leonard’s father Reuben (Moni Moshonov), who runs a dry-cleaning shop, has invited for dinner a local magnate and his family. The jolly magnate, also part of the Jewish community, plans to buy out Reuben’s business. He has a lovely daughter, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Both families are set on the idea of Sandra and Leonard getting together: they would cement the business relationship.
Sandra and Leonard hit it off. She’s taken with his air of tragedy and fascinated to see a woman’s photograph in Leonard’s room. That’s his fiancée, he explains – they had to break it off because genetic testing predicted their children might be born with health problems.
The second woman Leonard bumps into is Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Michelle has just moved into an apartment whose rear window overlooks Leonard’s bedroom. Her married lover pays the rent. Paltrow gives a good, discom posed performance – she’s like Grace Kelly, only racier. With the blonde hair, ravishing looks and slinky outfits, Michelle appears like an alien visitor in the dingy, bluecollar neighbourhood. She conforms to the type of the femme fatale, a manipulator who’ll say anything to get what she wants. Paltrow gets the tone exactly right as, to Leonard, she wheedles: “Help me... please.” She has a weakness for ecstasy pills. Two Lovers comes alive in the scenes with Paltrow and Phoenix.
Leonard falls for her like a lovesick adolescent and she takes him on as a buddy-cum-gofer. He tolerates any amount of rudeness, as when they go to a nightclub together and she abandons him to wait for her outside, then never emerges.
There’s a major obstacle to Leonard’s ambitions with Michelle: she’s mired in the perpetual dissatisfaction of an adulterous liaison. She nurtures hopes that her lover, Ronald (Elias Koteas), a partner in a law firm, will leave his wife and child and marry her. No one else thinks this will happen.
Leonard, for Michelle, is chiefly someone who can console her by being available to listen to her pouring out her romantic agonies at any time. He opens his heart to her: “I’d leave everything for you.” She replies with a deadly brush-off: “If you knew me better you wouldn’t think that. I love you like a brother.” She revels in Leonard’s adoration of her but we know she’s not about to plump for a man who lacks the means of supporting her. When the penniless Leonard declares: “I’ll take care of you,” you start to feel he’s losing his grip on reality.
They have a shared intimacy born of mutual neediness. But Leonard is genuinely divided because he’s drawn to Sandra as well. She spots scars on Leonard’s wrists from selfdamage. “Leonard, I want to take care of you,” she tells him. “You’re different.” Sandra and Michelle represent a contrast. Not only is Sandra caring where Michelle is flaky, but she also belongs to the same social context as Leonard; Michelle is an in-comer from a prosperous white-bread background. Leonard must choose either passion with an outsider or love and security with somebody from his own community. It’s a low-key film, but Gray and Phoenix succeed in making Leonard’s actions convincing. The final scenes grip the attention. Leonard rushes around while the two families noisily celebrate the business merger at the cramped flat – this claustrophobia, Gray seems to say, is what Leonard wants to escape.