Two Lovers

Two Lovers

****

Reviewed by: Val Kermode

This serious treatment of love and obsession is quite a departure for director James Gray, whose last three features were the critically acclaimed crime thrillers Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own The Night. His inspiration came from the Dostoevsky novella White Nights, about a man who begins a platonic friendship with a woman he meets in the street and then develops an obsession with her.

After his previous collaboration with the actor Joaquin Phoenix, Gray wrote the part of Leonard with him in mind. Leonard is a troubled young man living with his parents in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, following a suicide attempt and the break up of an engagement which still haunts him. He is introduced to the family of his father’s new business partner, including the daughter, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), who is attractive and caring. Initially resistant to parental pressure, he becomes involved with her.

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Then he meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his beautiful and volatile neighbour, who is in the throes of a relationship with a married man forever on the point of leaving his wife. He is drawn into helping Michelle, also caught up in an obsession with this man she can’t have. As she becomes increasingly self-destructive, Leonard finds himself caught between the two women in his life.

Joaquin Phoenix is utterly convincing in this role, conveying the longing and confusion with glimpses of the happier guy he could be. His free flowing acting style seems to bring out a new dimension in Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance, in what is for her a rather atypical role. Leonard’s parents are played with a nice ambiguity by Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini, the latter, particularly, showing a dark side to her character. Leonard is being treated for mental illness, and there is the sense that the parents are coping with this by keeping him close.

The setting of Brighton Beach is important, with its sense of claustrophobia, the cramped apartment rooms, the staid Jewish society. Gray (with his Director of Photography Joaquin Baca-Asay) has kept the colours drab and earthy, so by contrast the pale Michelle with her long blonde hair is like an exotic butterfly. Leonard’s meetings with Sandra take place indoors; their lovemaking is in his cluttered room. But it is up on the rooftop where his passion soars for Michelle, as if these two lovers are straining to leave the ground.

Though this intense love story marks a shift for its director, it also references his ongoing interest in the degree to which one’s social context and intrinsic nature determine one’s destiny. In its intimacy, this is a film which will appeal to European audiences. It is refreshing to see something which, unlike most romantic comedies, doesn’t follow a formula, though its theme is timeless.

Reviewed on: 25 Mar 2009
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A man struggles with his emotions as his founds tentative relationships with two women.
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Director: James Gray

Writer: James Gray, Ric Menello

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov, Julie Budd, Nick Gillie, Carmen M. Herlihy, Samantha Ivers, Anne Joyce

Year: 2008

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

London 2008

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