James Gray's Two Lovers may be the closest thing American movies have to a Dardenne Brothers film. Well, Kelly Reichardt may have something to say about that, but my point is this: finally we have an American film that is willing to be a melodrama and be serious all while being based in reality. It's rare for a film that portrays love in the same way a soap opera might to have the ability to pull me in and believe in the characters. Of course the acting has a lot to do with it, but Gray films his movie in a way that allows that feeling to seep under your skin; it's a slow process, and like a Dardenne film the first 20 minutes are used for the viewer to get their bearings, but once that happens you realize you're watching a film that has deep and heavy themes, but delivered in a stark and truthful way. I was completely enamored with this film. It's one of my favorite movies of 2009.
However one day he meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the hall of his apartment building and strikes up a conversation with here. This begins a friendship between the two that is obvious from the onset means more to Leonard than it does to Michelle. She's dealing with being in a relationship with a married man, and he's busy courting Sandra (Vanessa Shaw), and in a nice touch by Gray he uses a cell phone ring tone that represents Michelle being "with" Leonard while he's with Sandra.
The interiors of the apartment (dingy), the iciness of the exteriors, and the overall grunginess of the Brooklyn location perfectly evokes the inner feelings and psyche of the film's characters, again, making me think of the Dardenne's: these characters are not only representations of their geography, they're products of it. Unlike a previous melodrama I reviewed (Breaking and Entering) James Gray's Two Lovers perfectly understands how to use mise-en-scene as metaphor. The actors don't have to explain to us that their surroundings symbolize the emotional and mental battles they're facing, nor does Gray's aesthetic (a superbly subtle and cerebral one) call too much attention to the off-kilter world these characters inhabit.
Gray has finally made the movie I think I've always seen in him. He's tried his hand at different types of gangster films, The Yards and We Own the Night (both starring Phoenix), but they just never felt like complete films. With Two Lovers he creates a sad, contemplative, realistic film that evokes a mood that stays with you for days. It's a film that I saw in the theater, and misinterpreted its foreboding themes as plodding, sorta-good ideas. However, recently viewing it on DVD has completely changed my mind.