' Cinema Romantico: Two Lovers

Monday, March 02, 2009

Two Lovers

About a quarter of a way through James Gray's ode to love, and all the tumult, confusion and beauty it contains, we watch as Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) talk to each other from their respective Brooklyn apartment windows looking out over the open courtyard between them while soft jazz skates across the soundtrack. All that's missing is the clotheslines suspended between the two walls of brick. If not for passing references to things like, say, DVD's and the internet, this might be mistaken for something out of the sixties. It's a heightened romantic melodrama from years gone by.

The film opens with a suicide attempt, for God's sake. Leonard dives into a bay, then chooses not to drown, swims back to the surface, and is rescued. It gives us our bearings straight away. He works in his father's (Moni Monoshov) dry cleaning business and his mother (the always grand Isabella Rossallini) constantly listens at his door, worriedly wondering what her son might be up to. You know how often movie parents say they love their children regardless of who and what they are? Well, Leonard's parents don't say that but we know it to be true.

Phoenix is fantastic in the role. We get his backstory - engaged to a woman who left him, he tried to kill himself, he's on medication - but even without that his performance would tell us all we need to know. It is a jittery one. Look at the scene where he waits by himself in a restaurant booth. My God, there is so much going on in that scene without him saying a word I don't wish to reveal anymore and just let you come to it cold.

One day his father invites a friend, also in the dry cleaning business, and his family over for dinner. His daughter, the sublime, single, of course, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), comes along. It is clear the parents are playing matchmaker for their children and perhaps this is a good thing. Sandra is sweet, patient and affectionate. She seems like someone who could help keep Leonard calm.

Alas, that is precisely why Michelle must turn up in the apartment complex and turn out to be Sandra's exact opposite. She is vivacious, high strung and maybe a little bit crazy. She is seeing a dashing charmer (Elias Koteas) who has a wife and kids and professes he loves her and then never turns up at the times she needs him most. Leonard sees something in her. Maybe a bit of himself. He enters into her world and, oh, what a glorious mess it is.

If the set-ups and situations and follow throughs are a bit obvious, well, who cares all that much when the whole enterprise is delivered by all parties with such....such....gusto!!! A rooftop sequence between Leonard and Michelle with nothing but a howling wind for accompaniment as he pours forth all his soul contains is like watching the great tenor at the opera you plunked down wads of cash to see at the Met step forth and belt out an aria that leaves you dizzy and faint and makes your date weep into your shoulder. The film is less about depth and more about emotion. Swirling emotion that is simultaneously filled with beauty and pain. Oh, oh yeah.

The end is curious. So often romantic melodramas end in tragedy and at first glance it would appear such a conclusion in "Two Lovers" is averted. But then I think about it a little more and I'm not so sure.

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