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Understanding Characters

I watched James Gray’s Two Lovers last night, his polarising relationship drama starring Joaquin Phoenix which, inevitably, was unfairly caught in the storm of madness which surrounded his breakdown and (hopefully) botched rap career launch.

Gray’s films are a strange experience. The man appears to have very little sense of irony on the surface of his work, creating worlds which seems to be deadly serious and yet tinged with a sense that a knowing hand is at work. Two Lovers is, for the most part, an extremely uncomfortable experience, in which we are given Phoenix’s Leonard, a bi-polar, semi-suicidal sometime photographer, who falls in love in two completely different ways with two entirely separate potential mates. The first, Sandra (who is played incredibly well by Vinessa Shaw), is the daughter of one of Leonard’s father’s business acquaintances and friends with whom his father is presently seeking to broker a merger of their respective dry cleaning businesses. She makes her attraction to him known during their first exchange alone, giving Leonard the knowledge that this option has become open to him, something he later takes advantage of on two separate occasions.

The other is Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is the antithesis of Sandra. She is a fuck-up, a former addict conducting an affair with a middle-aged married man in a city law firm, who moves into Leonard’s building and subsequently his life. There is even a sense that I got that her coming into his world wasn’t entirely by accident on her part. She becomes an infatuation for Leonard, someone for him to look after and play the man for, to take her to hospital appointments and give approval on her lover, all the while harbouring notions of a romantic relationship with her.

The triumph of the film is in making the audience understand these relationships, if only from a distance. I could never place myself within the role of Leonard and understand, despite the heroic ideals she drives in him, why he would persist in going after Michelle. But that would be a view from my perspective. Extracting myself from the story and just watching the characters, richly drawn as they are by Gray, I could wholly empathise with the path that Leonard chooses to take in pursuing something with Sandra.

For Leonard, she represents an opportunity to escape an existence of being looked after. His mother near-coddles him when he is at home. His father allows him unlimited leeway whilst working in their dry cleaners. Even in his burgeoning relationship with Sandra, he becomes the one being looked after, a sense beautifully communicated by a scene in which she purchases him a pair of gloves. Leonard sees in Michelle an opportunity to escape this way of living, to take on the task of being the one doing the looking after.

Yet we understand that this relationship is doomed. Despite understanding Leonard’s attraction to Michelle, Gray leads us constantly into knowing that she will break his heart by the denouement of their relationship. Indeed she does, and the moment forces Leonard into understanding his place in life, that he needs to have someone to look after him. The final few scenes, in which this emotional transition occurs and concludes with Leonard using the ring he bought for Michelle to propose to Sandra, is the moment in which Gray’s film shifts from anthropological study of human love to a truly personally empathetic experience.

The film is imperfect, primarily because the detachment which makes it so admirable does not translate into having a truly emotional experience. But there can be no denying that Gray, for all his lack of subtlety in writing relationships, completely understands the inner motivations and desires of his characters.