The decision to kick off the series with James Gray was a rather easy one. Not only is Gray one of the most wrongfully unheralded American storytellers working in all of contemporary cinema, but his films are often lost in the shuffle or neglected in part to their refusal to conform to cinema’s demographic driven standards.
Two Lovers is the director’s fourth feature, per IMDb, the film is a Brooklyn-set romantic drama about a bachelor (Joaquin Phoenix) torn between the family friend (Vinessa Shaw) his parents wish he would marry and his beautiful but volatile new neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow). Yes, it’s ostensibly a film about a man juggling two very different love interests; most films are content with running with this very premise and never looking back. Gray has little interest in subverting said premise, as his intentions are far more poetic, often situated or operating beneath the film’s surface.
In listening to the commentary, Gray makes it explicitly clear that the currency Two Lovers deals in is the “authenticity of emotion.” Not only is it the governing principle of this film, but perhaps that of the director’s entire filmography up to this point. Gray’s commitment to a specific poetic truth is unwavering, a trait that pushes this film beyond the traditional relationship drama. We come to learn this film wouldn’t have been made without Phoenix, whose thirtysomething Leonard is suffering from bouts of bipolar disorder and arrested development. In borrowing from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “White Nights” to shape Leonard’s mental illness and the slightly off-kilter sense about him, Gray highlights his attempt to update the “underground man.” Leonard’s attempts to avert loneliness are also present throughout, as Gray hoped to call into mind the idea of waking up at 4 AM with the startling realization of being alone in the world; Phoenix’s masterfully subdued work here is likely his career best thus far.
Gray’s commentary never morphs into something banal, as he effortlessly switches his talking points throughout the film. When he’s not offering up how the project initially came to fruition (mostly due to Paltrow’s interest in working with Gray) or his fascination with Fellini, Gray speaks to the importance of off-screen space and the greater implication of what’s inside the frame. Aside from updating a certain Dostoyevsky character to present day, it’s also pleasant to hear where else Gray has borrowed from: the director’s running penchant for club scenes continues in Two Lovers with visuals inspired by Mikhail’s Kalatozov’s 1964 film I Am Cuba (a film PTA also borrowed from for Boogie Nights), and the action of a man and woman speaking to one another across a courtyard – something taken from Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love.
The illuminating beauty of Two Lovers is found in its transcendence as Gray captures the collision of emotions with a respectful and matured empathy. The sense of not being alone in our struggle as audience members is successfully projected onto the screen. Gray establishes the notion of wanting what we can’t have in life, exemplified through Leonard’s quest for Paltrow’s Michelle, someone above him in social standing whose lifestyle seems far distant from his own in Brighton Beach. The two share multiple rooftop scenes together throughout the film, one done in an unbroken four minute take. Gray speaks to the idea of filming in one shot, saying it enables the viewer to have a choice of what to look at in the frame, leading to a certain ambiguity in the moment. During this scene, Gray chimes in on the common misconception that good editing is synonymous with rapid cutting, a la something like The Bourne Ultimatum (a film Gray is a fan of).
As Two Lovers inches toward its richly dubious conclusion (specifically a final shot that seemed far more concrete on first viewing), Gray reveals that he intends for all of his endings to be immersed in the bitter and the sweet – the beauty and the pain; he asserts that if possible, all endings should strive to pull this off. Two Lovers is not only a treasured film, but it’s the director at the height of his powers. There’s no sheen of glossiness detected in the work of Gray, a classicalist who appears to be working in the wrong decade, though we’re sure glad we can call his incisive fervor our own. His much anticipated Lowlife is due out sometime this year, a project inspired by stories his father used to tell about Ellis Island immigration. The film reunites him with Joaquin Phoenix, and also stars Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard.
– Ty Landis