' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Two Lovers

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Some Drivel On...Two Lovers

In the wake of “Joker” when everyone was rolling out the meme of Joaquin Phoenix’s aspirant standup comic in makeup dancing down those Bronx steps, the art house snobs, of which I am a card-carrying member, rebutted with their own, more infrequent meme, culled from Phoenix’s magnificent “Two Lovers” (2008) in which his character goes out dancing at the club and brings the house down, opening with the robot and leading into the worm. It elicits euphoria out of context but in the context of the movie itself it comes out of nowhere, this young guy, Leonard, living at home with his aged Jewish parents in Brighton Beach, working at his pops’s dry cleaning shop, suffering emotional problems, commandeering the dance floor. It is evocative not only of Leonard’s erratic nature but how Phoenix, in his greatest performance, honors it, truly giving a turn worthy of the familiar acting descriptor of Unpredictable. When Leonard suddenly realizes he’s trailing his neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the woman he takes out dancing, on the sidewalk, Phoenix has Leonard fall into this awkward version of a cock of the walk strut, truly evincing a man following the instantaneous, oft-conflicting signals of brains, the same ones leading him to jump into Sheepshead Bay in a spur-of-the-moment suicide attempt as the film opens before calling it off underwater and kicking back to the surface, literally plunging us into his discombobulated headspace.

This sort of emotional oscillation befits the film’s premise, evoked right there in the movie’s title, “Two Lovers”, the aforementioned Michelle, his neighbor, “who represents,” as the esteemed Roger Ebert wrote, “so many problems she should almost dress by wrapping herself in that yellow tape from crime scene investigations”, and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) who, much like her father’s yearning to buy Leonard’s father’s dry cleaning store will provide them some security, seeks to provide emotional security for Leonard too. In their scenes together, Shaw really looks at Phoenix, and if he sometimes looks back, he also frequently seems look around her, if not away from her entirely. Paltrow, meanwhile, looks at Leonard like someone who is both listening intently and retaining nothing, a life’s flash, underscoring her character. Indeed, Leonard, in the movie’s looping logic, wants to take care of Michelle as much as Sandra wants to take care of him, an absurd proposition given his mental problems, which are oblique in specifics but prominent nonetheless. For him, Michelle is a fantasy, glimpsed in an excursion to meet her and her (married) male suitor (Elias Koteas) in Manhattan, which director James Gray conveys as a faraway land of enchantment, underscored in Henry Mancini’s accompanying Lujon and shots that seem to be from out a cab window, like a tourist speeding by. Those shots approximate how Leonard and Michelle sometimes converse, through the window.

Their windows, looking at one another across their apartment’s building courtyard, underlines the movie’s acute sense of setting, illustrating how it’s opening a window into a whole other world. That world is contrasted against his parents’ apartment, carefully curated to effuse a warm and lived-in sense, while Leonard’s bedroom is this space in-between, chock full of stuff, as Sandra notes, but also never completely seen in a master shot, allowing us to fill in the blanks with our imagination. In that way, it’s akin to a little boy’s room, brought home in the light cast by the fish tank and the small desk lamp, and denotes the sense of him trying to decide whether to flee out the window, metaphorically speaking, into some adventure or accept the responsibility waiting on the other side of his door.

Yet if Michelle suggests fantastical escape, Gray and his cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay simultaneously question that idea with the colors they choose to shoot the majority of Leonard and Michelle’s scenes, often outdoors and in a blue underlining the wintry chill where even a rooftop love scene feels less romantic than painfully raw. These colors are juxtaposed, then, against the warmer earth tones in scenes of Leonard’s home life and opposite Sandra. At the same, though, emblemizing Leonard’s emotional dilemma, those colors and what they mean begin to run. Though the bar mitzvah of Sandra's little brother is recounted in more comfy hues, it is interrupted by a phone call from Michelle, reaching into his world. Likewise when Leonard has lunch with Sandra later, the table is set against a window, casting them in a frigid light mirroring how his mind remains on Michelle rather than the one he is with.

Unable to keep them apart, the two relationships blur and eventually intersect when Leonard, planning to run away with Michelle, buys an engagement ring. She stands him up, alas, which leads him back to Sandra, putting the ring on her finger instead. And it’s strange. I distinctly remember how melancholy that moment seemed the first I watched it, like a sadistic twist on happy ever after. This time, though, helped along by Shaw’s reaction and Phoenix’s trembling sincerity, I saw it anew, not as an ominous act of settling but a poignant evocation of truly being in love with two people.

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