Nuits Blanches: James Gray’s Two Lovers

James Gray’s Two Lovers, a film unappreciated on its initial release and all but forgotten when the Oscar nominations rolled around, is a gem waiting to be discovered, writes Hugh Lilly

If my hand trembles now it is because it has never been clasped by a hand as pretty and small as yours. I have become quite unused to women, or rather I have never been used to them. I’m quite alone, you know; I don’t even know how to talk to them.

So says the narrator of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1848 short story-cum-novella “White Nights”—subtitled “A Sentimental Novel (From A Dreamer’s Reminiscences.)” The story is just one of the sources which writer-director James Gray drew upon for the protagonist of his latest film, Two Lovers. Leonard Kraditor, played by Joaquin Phoenix in a bravura performance which may prove to be his last (on which more later), is a thirty-something bachelor with bipolar disorder who moves back in with his parents—played by Isabella Rossellini and the Israeli actor Moni Moshonov—in their apartment in Brighton Beach, a traditionally Russian Jewish neighbourhood (nicknamed “Little Odessa”) in Brooklyn, New York.

As the film opens, Leonard is attempting suicide; in his mother’s phrase he “fell into the bay”—just one of many references the film makes to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Leonard’s father owns a dry-cleaning business which will soon merge with another dry-cleaning company owned by family friends the Cohens—and, in a move which will be good for the business (and good for Leonard), his father tries to set him up with Sandra, the Cohens’ beautiful but shy daughter played by Vinessa Shaw (3:10 to Yuma, Eyes Wide Shut).

The two hit it off initially: she admires his attempts at amateur photography, he admires… well, her—but then Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), an attractive, spritely but obviously damaged woman who has recently moved in upstairs. She is a kept woman: her lover—played by Elias Koteas, a suave, talented yet aloof actor who bears a striking resemblance to Robert de Niro—is a lawyer uptown who lavishes her with gifts and evenings out at the opera, and pays her not immodest rent. Much of the film deals with Leonard’s wanting to have his cake and eat it too, though in a manner atypical of contemporary romantic drama: thankfully, Gray never descends to the manipulative domain of melodrama.

Two Lovers is only Gray’s fourth feature film, but it feels more considered and better assembled than the work of many seasoned directors. Like his previous films, 1994’s Little Odessa, 2000’s The Yards and 2007’s We Own The Night—both of which also starred Phoenix—in Two Lovers, Gray lays bare the emotional structure of a certain kind of small, tight-knit family dynamic.

The director’s authorial touch is built around a strict formalism and precise attention to the most minute detail—in sound, editing, scripting and especially lighting and cinematography—and in Two Lovers this is expressed as a return to ‘Classical’ Hollywood ideas of measured pacing, limited dialogue and, most notably, camera placement and framing.

Indeed, one of the film’s many highlights is its camerawork, and the way Gray frames his actors—in hallways and in the corners of bedrooms, in the rigid structure and rituals of a dining table, even strategically locking them in place on an open footpath outside a club in the middle of the night, saturated in streetlight—is wonderfully refreshing.

In choosing to eschew modern techniques, Gray has created what he himself has called an “anti-postmodern” film—essentially, something that doesn’t pander to an audience’s emotions. It is a film that (again quoting Gray) lacks the “grotesque” condescension of so many modern films about life and love made by young filmmakers today—a not-so-thinly-veiled attack, it would seem, on the ‘hipsterish’ series of pictures, paralysed by apathy, that make up the ‘mumblecore’ movement, and on films like (500) Days of Summer which openly pander to a more ingratiating group: pseudo- and wannabe hipsters.

James Gray (left) on set with Joaquin Phoenix

Gray’s inspiration is rooted firmly in classicism—or at least what the film industry, still a young, fast-talkin’ dame compared to literature and other arts, would term a sort of classicism: Gray borrows certain of the colour palettes (sans melodramatic baggage) of Douglas Sirk, and a kind of observing-from-afar framing from Hitchcock. He also adapts a more modern technique in service of his idealised ‘classical’ feel, using faint, almost unnoticeable (36 f.p.s.) slow-motion at several key moments—a small addition which continually gives the film a wonderfully delicate, ethereal atmosphere.

Perhaps the only wholly modern technique at work in the film is the use—at least three times—of breaking the fourth wall. In traditional cinematic or theatrical arts, actors very seldom address the audience—except, say, to deliver a soliloquy. But by looking directly down the barrel of a movie camera—breaking the imaginary ‘fourth’ wall that divides the audience from the proscenium—the illusion of performance is broken, and an emotional connection between audience and performer is born. Grey’s use of the technique—particularly in an early scene between Sandra and Leonard in his bedroom—is profoundly affecting.

As well as literary influences—Leonard is a modern, medicated equivalent of Dostoyevsky’s doomed, self-pitying characters—Two Lovers was informed by a number of other films. In camera movement (and even dialogue style) Gray mimics the scene from Mike Nichols’ classic 1967 film The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman’s jittery just-out-of-high-school character nervously navigates the social minefield of a busy party. Two scenes on the bell-tower-like rooftop of the apartment building deliberately recall Vertigo, and the influence of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Love—and more recent films like the wonderful 2001 Israeli-French production Late Marriage—is felt and mimicked in scenes at dining tables.

Gray’s use of music and sound is also a highlight: jazz bubbles up, seemingly from the heart of the city itself, in a scene where Leonard, through his bedroom window, talks to Michelle across the way and shoots photographs of her. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film takes place in a restaurant, as Henry Mancini’s “Lujon”—a percussive, Cuban-flavoured song also known as “Hot Slow Wind” and originally written for a TV show in the ’50s—swells up, down and around the soundtrack.

The film’s sound design is a delight, and Skywalker Sound, who edited and mixed the film’s sound track, inserted a crazy mix of noises—tugboats, tractors and even whale sounds, reportedly—to create an uneasy, vertiginous effect in certain scenes.

Opera and classical music are predominant, but one scene makes terrific diegetic use of a track by Moby; Michelle asks Leonard out to a club, and this unleashes in him a wave of enthusiasm and vitality—an outpouring of happiness and emotion of which he appeared wholly incapable up to this point. Gray says in writing the scene he was inspired by Phoenix’s “former life as a hipster” and the time he saw writer-director (and one-time Hollywood wünderkind) Harmony Korine break-dancing at a hotel bar.

The scene is the direct opposite of the film’s opening in that it makes visible the upper limit of Leonard’s bipolar disorder—he hasn’t felt this happy in a long time, and it’s a high so natural that it could never be artificially replicated or enhanced by any drug.

While promoting the film, Joaquin Phoenix appeared on David Letterman’s talk show wearing dark sunglasses, sporting a very long, scruffy beard and occasionally mumbling something about a career in rap music—he made no attempt to joke around with Dave like most of his guests do. In fact, the only funny moment came in Dave’s parting shot: “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight, Joaquin.” Phoenix hasn’t acted in a film since, and, sadly, his rap career seems to have stalled as well. If Two Lovers is his last film, it’s certainly a terrific swan song.

Released on the European and American festival circuits in 2008, but not screened widely in the US until February last year, the film was ignored by the public—though not critics—and, although it was eligible for this year’s Oscar’s, it was either deliberately overlooked, or, because it was released so long ago (in awards season terms), sadly forgotten. It is only now enjoying the respect and admiration it deserves.

Two Lovers is a film as in love with New York City, and with cinema itself, as Manhattan or Midnight Cowboy. It is as warm and as elegantly, obsessively romantic in its construction as the events it depicts—and it is every bit deserving of the praise and accolades which should now, post facto, be bestowed upon it.

Two Lovers is out now on DVD through Roadshow Entertainment.

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