James Gray is one of the rare dark romantic filmmakers left in Hollywood, and he demonstrates his mastery of this style with his most recent film, “Two Lovers.” The film, which features a performance by the Letterman-beloved Joaquin Phoenix, also stars Gwyneth Paltrow, and Isabella Rossellini in an interesting story that includes all the elements of an old-fashioned, lavish period romance: obsession, entanglements; you name it, this film’s got it.
Leonard (Phoenix) is a very emotional young man who finds himself in love with two vastly different women, Sandra (Shaw) and Michelle (Paltrow). He immediately demonstrates his instability; in the first scene of the film, Leonard attempts to kill himself. We later learn he was engaged to a woman who left him because they both tested positive for the gene that carries Tay-Sachs disease.
Leonard is helping at his family’s dry cleaning business that is in the process of a merger with another family’s operation. The Cohen family introduces Leonard to the young and lovely Sandra; his parents encourage this relationship with the belief that it will be not only good for business but also good for getting his mind off his failed relationship.
During this time, Leonard also meets Michelle, a free-spirited and rather unbalanced woman who is having an affair with a married lawyer. Leonard falls hard for Michelle, who does not reciprocate his feelings; he must satiate his unrequited love with Sandra’s affections. The film is refreshing in its willingness to deliver a romance that isn’t all happily-ever-after, head-over-heels. Leonard eventually accepts that life — though not perfect or ideal — is about making compromises.
The art-house film is definitely a throwback to an older style of filmmaking, and it is a refreshing sight for over-stimulated, sore eyes. While “Two Lovers” is a hard film to find in theaters, it is definitely one to see. It is a film of substance, and unlike anything out today, it is a depiction of the struggle of finding love, understanding love and being in love.
It’s a shame that Phoenix has gone down such a strange and dark path as of late (he has said publicly that this will be his last acting role, as he will pursue hip hop as an outlet for his creative energy), because the film highlights what a truly gifted actor he is. James Gray wrote the part of Leonard just for Phoenix, and the work of both these men is impeccable and on display in a beautiful way.
Even though Gray’s filmography has not found immense box-office success, his films are always the critics’ and film festivals’ choice. Gray is able to write and make films that are true to the heart and are always done in such a creative and raw fashion. “Two Lovers” is just another example of Gray’s artistic outlooks on life and on love.
— Sara Weitz