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We fool ourselves when we are in love. So says writer/director James Gray (with writing partner Ric Menello) in Two Lovers.

Three Lovers

Three lovers wish there were Two Lovers
Three lovers wish there were Two Lovers

Joaquin Phoenix, looking beefier and acting lunkier than usual, is Leonard, the son of a dry cleaner. He lives with his parents. Although dad is getting out of the business, there is no question of him handing it over to Leonard. Instead, he’s looking to sell to a younger businessman with another chain of dry cleaner shops. But both men still have high hopes for Leonard. They want him to get to know Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of the other businessman, and if they hit it off, maybe together they can take the business from their parents.

Leonard is oblivious to almost all of this. He likes Sandra, but he’s also just met a beautiful woman who moved in to his building. Michelle (Gwynneth Paltrow), is a little like Holly Golightly: beautiful and mysterious, she wraps men around her little finger when it suits her. Or maybe she just lets men wrap themselves around her little finger.

Michelle invites Leonard out clubbing. She opens up emotionally in front of him. She even tells him about her sugar daddy (Elias Koteas), who keeps promising he’ll leave his wife for her. In Michelle’s mind Leonard is like a brother and no more. Leonard, convinced that he is in love with Michelle, will take whatever scraps he can get.

Lying to Themselves

Two Lovers rewards your close attention. The characters may not all be telling the truth. They undoubtedly believe what they say, but the audience, with a god’s eye view of the characters, know them better. If you don’t watch closely, though, you might be fooled.

Take Michelle, who is selfish and needy. She’s not a bad person for it — she’s not merely greedy. Rather, when she is in pain she reaches out for comfort, knowing that most men will accommodate her.

Likewise we can see that Leonard is being used and taken advantage of. We can see that Michelle is keeping him around as a safety net, as a backup. We see that Sandra, the dry cleaner’s daughter, would be a good match for him, and that Sandra actually loves him. But Leonard himself can’t see any of this.

In the movie’s strongest (strangest) scene, Leonard speaks one of the most impassioned declarations of love in recent memory. He tells Michelle that he not only loves her, but also knows exactly what love is and exactly who she is — even better than herself. It’s a delicious irony for the audience who can see he’s got it exactly wrong.

An Old Story

The movie feels like it’s based on something ancient. Two lovers live across a courtyard from each other. In one scene a character hides behind a door so he can eavesdrop on a conversation. The love triangle involves parental expectations and the joining of two dynasties. I would have guessed Shakespeare, but the source material is half a century newer than that: a Dostoyevsky short story called White Nights.

The movie has a well placed musical score. There’s almost no soundtrack music, but at key moments music will come in. At one particularly emotional point, the sound of the world fades away leaving a single acoustic guitar, enhancing the movie’s dark and sad mood.

Two Lovers is not particularly timely, nor does it leap out from among other dark romances. But it’s a decent little actors’ film that works better the more you’re willing to give it.