Two Lovers (what a banal title by the way) is about a love triangle in which both females do not know of their "rival". So the film concentrates on Leonard's relationship with these two women and his emotional negotiation of the two poles of reality that they represent. There's been criticism that women such as the glamorous Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the kindhearted homebody Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) would not fall for a manic depressive like Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) who is apparently stuck in a state of arrested development, still living at home with his conservative Jewish parents. But that's rubbish: nowhere is the moth-to-the-flame and lamb-to-the-slaughter dynamic stronger than in the field of love. Both men and women - often irrespective of upbringing, age, intelligence, and background, but not emotional stability - can crash into the arms of people who seem and perhaps are wholly inappropriate. Not just a few tears but months and years can be wasted on dysfunctional attempts for the relationship to fulfil an ideal, a projection or a longing that it simply cannot fulfil.
And so it is with Leonard: Thanks to Phoenix's brilliantly instinctual portrayal, you really feel for Leonard when he fidgets with shame and insecurity as he's trying to impress and get close to Michelle. Her long glossy blonde locks, her partying, her encouragement of his creative pursuits and her own mysterious job (Leonard watches as she steps into a black, chauffeur-driven Mercedes): Michelle is a woman from another world, who represents escapism and freedom for Leonard from his dreary work in the family business, the claustrophobia of living with his parents and uncomfortable recognition of his own unfulfilled potential. Sandra offers him the opposite: comfort, security, reliability and a steady, stable love - all values that keep him inside the family dynamic in which he has grown up. Leonard's journey is an internal one: What are his values? What and who does he love? And to what extent is he prepared for a conflict to arise between his love for (or rather projection on) a woman and his role and feelings of responsibility within his family? In tune with his skittish, unsettled personality and psychological problems, Leonard experiences these questions on a deep emotional level.
Ultimately, this well acted and directed film is not about love itself, but rather psychological projection and the role our environment plays in choosing the ones we love - or the ones with whom we choose to settle down. If there are faults, I'd say that they are small ones:
- Michelle's father, who is never seen, is barely mentioned again after Leonard meets Michelle in the hallway, which seems dramatically unconvincing. It's a little too obvious that her father is used as a catalyst/dramatic device for her and Leonard to meet in the first place.
- It feels a bit unlikely that Leonard would be the son of such parents, although this may have to do with Phoenix being so famous that it takes an extra dose of imagination on the viewer's part to wrench him from his position in celebrity culture and re-position him in this role as son in this family environment (not a fault of his acting).
- James Gray speaks on the director's commentary about trying to reach a "poetic truth" by using thunder and wind as pathetic fallacy. These are stock tropes for conveying the idea of conflict and disruption (e.g. Emily Brontė's Wuthering Heights); it would have been interesting to explore new ways of demonstrating something unsettling without the usual sudden arrival of poor weather.
- I'd say Gray overdoes the glove symbolism at the end.
But this is compelling stuff, especially from Phoenix. (4.5 stars)
* The Beautiful Person - directed by Christophe Honoré and starring Louis Garrel
* Anna M (DVD)
- directed by Michel Spinosa and starring Isabelle Carre
* Gisela (DVD)
- directed by Isabelle Stever and starring Carlo Ljubek