“Two Lovers” (2008) is about wants and needs, love and being loved.
It’s human nature to want what we can’t have. The unrequited love is always the sweetest right before its conquest. The stranger on the train always seems so much more alluring than the person sleeping beside you at night. It is human nature to desire of an otherworldly beauty, but the possession of that beauty, even attained, is often fleeting, and seldomly satisfy the basic, tactile needs craved in our soul.
Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) knows the taste of that craving well. He suffers daily, seemingly trapped in his own body and thoughts. The film begins with him slipping quietly into the bay, only to surface minutes later gasping for help. Passerbys lug him to safety, and he nervously scrambles away. “Aren’t you going to thank the guy who saved your life?” They incredously shouted after him. Stopped abruptedly in his tracks, Leonard spun around and with eyes as empty as the bleak sky, mumbled “thank you”, like obligatory expressions of gratitude after someone reminded you of dropped changes on the sidewalk.
This is a man whose pain is so visible that it wraps around him like a rigid fog, and it’s hard to address him without addressing it. His parents try hard to do so. They are well-intentioned, middle-class, jewish parents. Leonard lives at home. The mother tends to him like a mother would, somewhat overbearing in the sweetest of ways. The father is more composed, but equally eager to help. This is a nest that can heal a wounded mind. Leonard knows that, and he is grateful.
But this film is not about a loving family. We are lucky that director James Gray provides us with such a subtle backdrop, but it is really about the two women who come into Leonard’s life and what they represent to him. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), daughter of an old family friend, is quiet, pretty, and kind. She brushes past his exterior awkwardness and sees something precious in Leonard. Perhaps she is the caring kind…you know, those ones who rescue every wounded animal that comes their way and nurse them back to health, and find it hard to let them go? Maybe Sandra is one of those people. Maybe she harbors a secret wound as well. We never find out. Leonard lacks social grace and decorum, and his only charm lies in a confused ball of artistic yearnings and raw vulnerability, but somehow that attract Sandra more than any other potential suitors. “I want to take care of you,” she saids. She buys him leather gloves for winter. He would treasure them at a most unexpected time.
Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the polar opposite of Sandra. Leonard meets her accidentally in the hallway of his building one day, where she is escaping the yellings of her father. He invites her in and discovers that they are neighbours. They can see each other through their windows across the courtyard. It is no coicidence that her apartment is higher from his and tucked away in the diagonal corner, for she, with long flowing blond hair, a beautiful smile and pleading voice, is so easy to love, and so utterly out of reach. She towers over him with her womanly charms, and he falls for it willingly. We all know someone like that, naturally gifted with charm and beauty and uses them unabashedly in the realization of their own desires. They don’t mean to be so charming, you know. They don’t even mean to be mean…after all they were honest with you from the beginning, and they just needed you from time to time, you didn’t have to say yes.
Paltrow wears the role like a glove. She is probably one of those people in real life, naturally gifted with charm and beauty. Her slender frame and delicate features carry an innate vulnerability, and it’s difficult to imagine a man that doesn’t want to protect her from harm. Shaw, with those doe-shaped eyes, oozes safety and kindness. She is the girl next door that you are delighted to find yourself with once you are with her. Phoenix…well, it’s hard to know where the movie begins and ends with him. Given that this was the last film he did before announcing his exit from acting, and right before that bizarre Letterman interview, I can’t help but wonder if the line between fantasy and reality was blurred here. He has played many tortored souls, starting with his breakout role in “Gladiator”, and this may be his finest performance yet.
It’s fascinating to watch Leonard struggle between these two women. On the one hand, the blond goddess not only attracts him, but needs him. It doesn’t matter that she has a boyfriend already – she manages to find room in her current predictment to need Leonard still, and he flutters to her rescue like a moth to flame. Sandra, on the other hand, survives just fine without Leonard. She doesn’t need Leonard, but she wants to take care of him. And she wouldn’t mind if he needed her, she wouldn’t mind at all.
What does Leonard want? He wants Michelle. “I know you,” he saids, “I’m fucked up too.” Perhaps he thought he could save her. Perhaps he saw her in him, and by saving her, it made it seem possible to save himself. Except two damaged parts do not match up to one perfect whole. The fragility can’t just transform into solidarity like alchemy.
What does Leonard need? That is the million dollar question. Everyone wants him to be happy, but he needs to find the desire to be happy within himself first. Michelle may have sparked that fire…but her fickle disposition cannot hold it. She is desperate for that spark too, and she is too confused to tend to another’s fire.
This is more than a story of the blond beauty versus the brunette girl-next-door. It’s about the bringing together of one’s wants and needs. Michelle lives her life in operas, and Sandra has only been to the Nutcracker. But at the end of the day, where would you rather be? Living in an opera or sitting on the couch with your family? And she looks so good in that living room too.
Is it better to love or to be loved? To need someone or to be needed by someone? So often we have to choose… thankfully many would gladly supply one or the other. In an ideal world, everyone would be perfectly whole and we would match each other in our serene wholeness. In reality, we are all damaged to some extent, and it is comforting to know that, at least sometimes, our damaged selves can come together, and somehow our imperfections can match up, like jigsaw puzzles, into a perfectly clear picture.
Spoiler near end of interview…skip the last 2 minutes if you haven’t seen the film yet.