Written by: Letty Muse Tomlinson, Special to CC2K
February in America is typically rife with trifling homages to sappy, thin facsimiles of love. This is also the month when studios look to rouse audiences out of their winter torpor, and into the cineplexes, with a few formulaic romances filled with stock characters. Two Lovers is a dark, refreshing break from the kind of movie that you’re “just not that into,” and a more terrestrial exploration of love than we normally pay money to see.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a guarded, sullen young man. After an attempted suicide following the breakup of his engagement, he moves back into his parents’ Brighton Beach apartment. His parents introduce him to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a family friend, hoping to divert his attention away from his broken heart. Their plan is met with limited success. Sandra is kind and interested in Leonard, but he’s reluctant and uncertain around her. It isn’t until he meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) that he begins to stir from his depression.
Michelle has just moved into his apartment building; her apartment is visible from his bedroom window. She’s a whim-follower who decides that Leonard is her “new best friend.” In her presence, Leonard allows himself to open up in a way he can’t, or won’t, around his family. But Sandra isn’t too far from his thoughts. Awkward as their initial meeting was, he’s still attracted to her.
The movie follows him through the period of several weeks during the fall, as he dates Sandra and cozies up to Michelle. He even goes so far as to go on a date with Michelle and her married boyfriend, supposedly to glean whether her boyfriend will ever leave his family for her.
The film reminded me of a game of hypothetical situations: which is the person you date, and which is the one you marry? Leonard enjoys both women for different reasons, and his affections are torn. At first blush, the title Two Lovers refers to the two women with whom Leonard is in love. Really, it is Leonard who is two lovers – a different man for each woman. With Sandra, he is the patient, receiving non-judgmental love and devotion; steadiness that someone as fragile as him needs. With Michelle, he has the prospect of providing emotional steadiness for someone even less anchored than him. He is the healer. A solid relationship with Sandra would not only be personally satisfying, it would benefit his family’s business. A solid relationship with Michelle would be the antithesis of his family’s expectations – a tasty personal rebellion. It’s easy to get pulled into his vacillation and deliberation between the two women.
Two Lovers skulks in ambiguity. Every moment is bittersweet, and edged in grey. Leonard has moments of happiness with both women, but we’re never certain that he’s genuinely happy. Our society permits loving one person fully, only one partner at a time. However, it’s easy to see that Leonard’s simultaneous love for each woman isn’t lopsided; it’s just different. Even when he makes a choice between the two, we’re left feeling the situation is ultimately unresolved. I’m not convinced that Leonard is a character who ever gets a resolution – much like most of us here on terra firma. In a commercial season malodorous with saccharine sweet sentiment, this film is a breath of chilly fresh air.