Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lovers Triangle

Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ric Menello, is a haunting, subtle, film about thwarted dreams, broken hearts and the finite limits of redemption.  It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, the lonely neurotic character who brought him out of retirement.  Initially his story smacks of C.C. Baxter in The Apartment.  Leonard's in love with his damaged neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), but she's involved in a hopeless relationship with her married boss.  His parents (who he lives with) would prefer he date and ultimately marry Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), for the sake of their business merger with her parents.  But Leonard is a man on the edge.  

In the film's dizzying opening, Leonard tries to commit suicide -- unsuccessfully.  Later we learn that the root of his malaise is a failed relationship.  We as an audience see early on that Leonard's fragile heart will be safer with Sandra, but as their relationship deepens Leonard can't keep his mind off Michelle.  Leonard shares a frank chemistry with both women, but only Sandra sees him through a lover's eyes.  Michelle in contrast refers to Leonard as her "new best friend."  With each passing moment, Leonard's infatuation pushes him deeper into a full-fledged obsession with Michelle. Even as pressures rise for him to propose to Sandra.  At varying times, it is impossible to know precisely what the characters are thinking.  The writing is wonderfully nuanced and the cast acts out the full spectrum of human emotions.  

These emotions are articulated in wonderfully authentic, often contradictory terms.  Leonard's obsession with Michelle teeters on the edge, precariously charged with the question of whether he'll eventually charm her or self-destruct trying.  Phoenix's simultaneous vulnerability and volatility is frightening to watch.  We never quite know what he'll do next.  His every action is infused with a repressed combination of violence and sweetness.   When he finally makes a choice between the women in his life, the end result is far more ambiguous and inscrutable than one might expect.  The movie's offbeat tone is nicely expressed in the music, which features a sparing combination of lyrical harp and opera.  Silence is also bravely used to great effect.  

The central relationships unfold messily.  As in life, everything is not spelled out and the things the characters don't say are more important than the things they do.  We never know what Leonard did to hurt himself.  We never know what truly binds Michelle to her married lover.  And we never know for certain if Sandra is aware that she's the consolation prize.  Two Lovers contemplates the imperfections of love in ways that few modern romantic dramas are willing to do.   This may all sound overly bleak and portentous but the movie sings with the same melancholic wit that jazzed up some of the best of Billy Wilder's work.  The end result is hypnotic, provocative and strangely reassuring.  We see ourselves in the characters and we accept that like them, it is never too late for us to make a change.