Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
The opening sequence is vital. The requisite black of the opening credits gives way to a cloudy gray sky, which is partially covered by the back of a man's head. A lone gull slowly flies across the frame and it punctuates the gloomy atmosphere, an atmosphere that is predominantly supported by the deafening rhythm of an unpredictable breathing. We essentially feel what Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) feels after what seems to be an unfair turn of events. Director James Gray momentarily removes us from Leonard's perspective, and from a safe distance, we see the character, bowed down in contemplation, walk, arbitrarily drop the freshly dry-cleaned clothes he was carrying, climb the railings of the bridge, and jump into the sea. Gray brings us back to Leonard's perspective: a struggle of air bubbles in the cold seawater; a piercing memory of a perfect love that turned out to be imperfect; a glimmer of light in the distance and indistinct shouts from the surface. Leonard is eventually rescued, walks away from the crowd with hardly an expression of gratitude to his saviors.
Leonard is all at once a very familiar and unfamiliar man. From the safety of a cinematic distance, his case seems unique: a suicidal thirty-something man from Brooklyn who after another failed attempt at ending his life, suddenly falls in love with a new neighbor, who is herself in love with a married man, while entertaining possibilities of romance with her father's business partner's daughter. However, Gray insists on depicting Leonard as an everyman, a personification of our own stubborn insistence on the fantastical notion of the existence of a grand romance, a figment of what we used to be or what we refuse to believe that we are. That is why the opening is vital. It is what invites our eyes to see the world through Leonard's incongruently hopeful and jaded point of view. The opening does that as it establishes a connection: that more than being approximated how it is to live like Leonard, we are approximated how it is to nearly die like Leonard. This is a connection that is enough for us to understand him notwithstanding the novelties of his circumstance: that he lives with his parents; that he is volatile; that his current predisposition is utterly unsatisfying considering that he is loveless, lifeless, and works for his father's dry-cleaning business when he fancies himself an artist.
The dilemma that Leonard has is hardly gargantuan, although to him and probably the rest of the uncynical world, it probably is. In a curious twist of fate, he is given two avenues to repair his romantically battered soul. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of Leonard's father's business partner, is your typical girl, the type that suddenly springs in your life with hardly any fanfare, although she starts to grow on you, but never enough to personify a lifelong fantasy. Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), on the other hand, the new neighbor who is troubled by her married lover's inability to fulfill his promise to leave his family for her, is that fantasy girl who, although seemingly disinterested in a romance with you because of several reasons, is far too close to ignore or forget. Gray paints Leonard's dilemma with the casualness that is striking and oftentimes, heart-wrenching. Gray's camerawork, precise in its deliberate movements, fluttering through the interiors of Leonard's apartment or in and out of the brick pillars of the building rooftop, exemplifies an earnestness, a quiet sincerity that gives the intertwining relationships an emotional resonance that is simply too palpable to discard. In that regard, the tender moments, such as Leonard's attempt to kiss Michelle while she is sleeping or the prelude to Leonard and Sandra's lovemaking as backdropped by black and white portraits of Leonard's ancestors and opera that sprung out of Leonard's frustration to win Michelle's affection, are devastatingly beautiful, ravishing brush strokes that complete a masterwork of a painfully real document of the randomness of romantic affection.
Leonard's family is a lingering presence. His familial ties, through the several generations of Kraditors hanging in the apartment, the unavoidable pull to partake in the family business, the Jewish traditions, pervade his intentions to find and gain the love of his life. His father (Moni Moshonov) and mother (Isabella Rossellini), laid-back yet utterly concerned of their son's emotional condition, insist on a hold on him, sneaking behind his locked door to get an inkling of what he is doing and manufacturing opportunities for him and their anointed girlfriend so that they can get together despite his subtle protestations. Leonard, with his indelible familial attachment and his insistence on betting everything on a fantastical appreciation of love, is essentially a man-child, a Brooklyn variation of all the adult yet childish men that have populated Hong Sang-soo's love triangles and who in their drunken and sex-desperate stupor, have dissected the basic intricacies of sexual relationships. Phoenix's Leonard however, with Gray's preference for melancholy and dolor over Hong's deadpan humor, is a particularly moving creation, a man stuck in his unevolving imagination, delighted and fanciful of the fleeting ecstasy of an undefined romance: communicating with Michelle via phone, with the added value of seeing each other through their connected window views; showing off his skills in the dance floor; and charming her friends through his stories and raps.
Thus, the film's conclusion, devastating if viewed from the perspective of a hopeless romantic, gives way to probably the film's truest moment, at least for Leonard. After reeling from a realization of his overboard folly, he returns to his family nest and quietly proposes to Sandra, the girl who represents everything he is escaping from like family, his Jewish traditions, his father's beloved dry-cleaning business, and a life of abject ordinariness. He is rewarded a tender embrace; as Gray's camera follows his face and Leonard suddenly gazes at us, discarding the supposed distance, the object of escapism that cinema was meant for. That peering gaze, laced with a tinge of guilt, an acknowledgment that he knows that we know, a surrender to a real world that consistently rids itself of confused dreamers, is not unique in the film; as Michelle, while on the rooftop after Leonard's heartfelt declaration of love to her, similarly looks directly at the camera as she surrenders herself to Leonard after her realization of the impossibility of being with her married lover.
The gaze mystifies. It bothers. It disturbs because it's just too damned honest. Two Lovers, with its illusion-breaking gazes, its deliberate pacing, its primary use of a suicidal and lovesick man's painfully hopeful perspective, and its atmosphere of colorable melancholy, is, depending on one's readiness to be abruptly made sober of the intoxicating consequences of an infatuation with romance and picture-perfect happy endings, a work of undeniable power. It will lead you on, then break you completely, before curing you back into the banal comforts of this real world.