Details: (M), United States, English
Synopsis: A depressed young bachelor (Phoenix) moves back in with his parents following a recent heartbreak. He finds his life is suddenly turned upside down as he struggles to choose between the beautiful daughter of a close family friend (Shaw) and the beautiful (Paltrow), volatile next-door neighbor whose passion helps to reignite his lust for life.
A standout film in every way.
Interviewing a number of French actors a year ago I asked a few of them what directors they’d kill for a chance to work with. On at least two occasions the answers came back along the lines, “Yes, I would love to work with David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, James Gray…”
That third name will have many Australian viewers scratching heads. Despite being relatively taken for granted in his native US, Gray’s work is esteemed by the French – witness three consecutive screening slots in the prestigious Cannes competition with The Yards, We Own the Night and this, his latest.
Despite its lack of critical steam in English-speaking territories, Two Lovers is one of the standout US films of last year. Loosely based on Dostoevsky’s White Nights, this drama is built around a classic romantic triangle. What elevates it above the everyday is the vivid feel for character and vivid feeling for intimate drama shown by both the director-co-writer (working with Richard Menello) and the cast.
If for no other reason the film demands to be seen for one of the great recent film acting performances. In his third leading role for Gray in a row, Joaquin Phoenix plays the emotionally fragile Leonard, a young man living with, and working for, his Jewish New York parents. Leonard is bipolar – in the first scene he pathetically fails at drowning himself – yet the film is never depressing. We both root and fear for him every step of the way as he struggles to be independent and make the right decisions – it’s just that knowing what they might be isn’t always clear to us, let alone to him.
While his parents try to steer him towards marrying Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the nice Jewish daughter of a friend and business partner, Leonard is strongly attracted to a new neighbour, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is in a strained relationship with a married man. Instinctively, he recognises Michelle as a bird of a feather – a total fug-up, in other words – who disastrously seems to only want him as a friend she can confide in.
A scene where she takes Leonard to dinner to meet her lover, played by Elias Koteas, in an upscale Manhattan restaurant is squirm-inducing in the best possible sense. Sandra meanwhile, is not only equally beautiful but sweet and understanding. He seems however to sense that her concern for him is close to a mothering instinct – not what he feels he needs right now.
Throughout the film Leonard swings unpredictably between instinct and sense, individuality and duty. In Phoenix’s hands Leonard is frequently nervous, restless, uncomfortable in his own skin, while being apparently confident during his illness’s manic phases. We never know which way he’s going to turn, what he’s going to do next, so even when he’s behaving in an unremarkable manner we’re on the edge of our seats.
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