The buried themes in James Gray’s fourth film, Two Lovers, slowly emerge from its accumulation of quotidian, seemingly small details. After impulsively jumping off a bridge in the first scene, misfit Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) enters a cozy apartment in Brighton Beach, still wet, and we see Isabella Rossellini’s Ruth in the dining room. The casting here is key. I assumed she was playing Phoenix’s slightly older girlfriend, but when it becomes clear that the helplessly sexy Rossellini is playing Phoenix’s mother, Two Lovers resoundingly inaugurates a sensitive investigation into what can only be termed the key problem of Generation X, which is leaving the nest and defining oneself away from the seductiveness of baby-boomer parents.
We start to notice how Leonard’s clothes are exactly the sort of thing a mother would pick out for her son; they’re slightly dowdy, as if keeping him warm is the most important thing about them. When Ruth clucks at him to get up out of bed in the afternoon, Leonard slyly announces that he’s about to get undressed for a shower; this announcement is supposed to get her out of his room, and it does, but the erotic charge between mother and son is unmistakable. Mama Rossellini is the woman who defines Leonard’s life, not the two lovers of the title, the sweet but somewhat unimaginative Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) and the screwed-up, goddessy blond Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who inspires a completely adolescent romantic obsession.
Rossellini’s nosy but loving mother is a formidable bastion of maternal comfort, there to make food and to help and coddle her son whenever necessary. In the first dining-room scene, Gray cuts to a close-up of large pickles lying in their juice with a serving fork resting near them; the pickles look big and succulent enough to eat right off the screen, and it’s only in retrospect that you realize how sharp and forbidding that serving fork looks! This is one of many resonant images in Two Lovers that will mean different things to different people: Gray works his way through his narrative visually, and you have to follow it visually to pick up on the intuitive suggestions he’s planted.
The apartment that Leonard shares with his parents is maybe the most important character in the film; there’s a (wailing?) wall of family photographs that dominates the space, a cluster of picture frames that seem to be cowering together for support. After a while, this wall of framed photos starts to look like the bars of a prison (Leonard notices at one point how dusty the frames are). The furniture in the apartment is obviously old—so old, in fact, that a wealthier friend of the family condescendingly describes the whole ambiance of the place as “nostalgic.” Even so, Gray does a semi-reveal toward the end of the film to show that this otherwise preserved-in-amber home has a pricey flat-screen television in the living room, an upgrade that has to be made by every social class, apparently.
Trying to get warm after jumping in the river, Leonard desperately puts his cold hands near the top of a radiator, in close-up, and this shot carries a lot of naked desperation, especially when we see how it matches up with a later shot where the love-besotted Leonard bends down to kiss Michelle, who has her eyes closed, and can’t bring himself to put his lips on hers but just stands there, hovering in an ecstasy of pain and deep, withheld emotion. Phoenix makes Leonard a lispy, sub-Brando savant, both special and somehow ordinary, longing for Paltrow’s WASP femme fatale because he thinks that he can finally grow up if he has to take care of someone else’s problems for a change. Leonard is hilarious and very lovable when he tries to impress Michelle by attempting a handstand on the dance floor, and he does make a valiant effort to escape that serving fork lying near the pickles in his indestructible Brighton Beach womb/prison, but his fate is preordained, and his last-minute adjustments to it are quietly admirable. If the ending feels a bit rushed, it nevertheless ambiguously caps another unusually subterranean movie from an extremely distinctive director.