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Two Lovers

James Gray’s fog-cloaked triangle of torment hit cinema screens a few months back to less-than-zero fanfare and respectful if largely whelmed critical response. It finds its proper home on DVD, cataloguing as it does (think Cassavetes meets PT Anderson, or a downer spin on Hannah And Her Sisters) the story of Joaquin Phoenix’s deeply troubled coaster, allergic to life but hanging around (by a thread – the film begins with an abortive suicide plunge) on the off chance that something will emerge to provide much-needed succour to his wearied, tragedy-freighted existence.

Two such glimmers puncture his malaise. Vinessa Shaw’s slow-burn option 1 – elegant, malleable, altruistic family girl, and option 2 – frazzle-burn Gwyneth Paltrow’s beautiful, game, bruised, fluctuating drug-addict. Phoenix spends the film allowing his mother and father to coerce him into Shaw’s gentle, securely appealing orbit whilst coveting Paltrow, polar opposite, a flaky disaster zone of caustic magnetism.

Phoenix, a lead-limbed phantom of a man who ebbs rather than flows, works at his Israeli immigrant dad’s dry-cleaning business but is barely there: he plays the fool and waits for closing. He is teetering, still consumed by the hell of a catastrophic engagement that was brought to an abrupt end, and he wears the expression of a man with no core, augured vacuous and vanquished by torment.

Phoenix captures such a debilitated state brilliantly in a career-peaking turn. He is not self-consciously showy about his character’s mental state, and underplays things to a pitch-perfect level, allowing his brief bout of delirium as the film culminates have that much more impact. He emanates despair but is strangely likeable. It’s without doubt the best thing he’s done. Paltrow is similarly mesmerising and warrants more attention for another exceptional supporting role.

The inexorable elision with Shaw draws close and Phoenix, with no seeming convictions or entrenchments, inevitably lets things happen; anything is a distraction. More of a distraction, and perhaps a chance of a reclamation of whatever life Phoenix had prior to the capitulation of his life, is Paltrow, the plaything of Elias Koteas’ adulterous sleazebag, in limbo between animated allure and black-hole of evasive malaise. Phoenix gravitates toward danger, furtive curiosity prompting his pursual of Paltrow, the neighbourhood femme fatale, in full-view in her amber-lit apartment across the yard, and strikes up a burgeoning, easily-forged friendship via late-night telephone exchanges and ‘chance’ meetings on subway platforms.

The crux of the film, which path Phoenix will opt for – thrilling doom or comfortable acceptability – is left right until the last gasp of the final reel, and the decision is, in any event, made for him. He inadvertently finds, in the end, equilibrium, and fate steps in to absolve his careening self-destructiveness.

It’s the epitome of bittersweet, and it’s absolutely the right way to end the film. Resolution, of sorts, in tangled, achingly definitive finality. As the end nears, there is a scene that both captures and provides a fitting microcosm of Phoenix’s fate. He walks alone through darkness, a mercilessly exiled figure, as a muted carnival of New Year parties unfold mutedly in his peripheral vision. He is ostracised, ineluctably, and he is in his element: out of the picture, a silhouette on a street whilst revelry and life comes and goes everywhere else.

James Gray will do well to get anywhere near the nuanced poignancy of this film again. He lets the actors breathe addled life into their characters, and Phoenix and Paltrow mutually benefit from their jostling for supremacy in each of their shared scenes. Koteas and a wonderfully subdued Isabella Rossellini, as Phoenix’s quietly fraught mum, also do stellar work. The masterclass performances lead the film away from being considered an admirable curio to being within touching distance of classic status.

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