Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) does not on the face of it seem like the kind of man who would end up with two attractive lovers at the same time. He is in his mid-thirties and lives with his parents. He works as a delivery man for his father’s antiquated dry cleaning business. He takes black and white photographs as a hobby, but shoots only buildings. He takes medication for a variety of bipolar disorder. And in the opening scene of the film, he attempts to commit suicide (not for the first time, his worried parents remind themselves) by jumping off a pier.
Yet two lovers he has. The first, Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), is the pretty and good-hearted daughter of the man who is purchasing the Kraditor’s dry cleaning business. Both families are keen to see their children together; not only would a marriage cement the long-term business relationship, but Leonard and Sandra seem almost equally unlucky in love, and are all but pushed together by well-meaning parents who genuinely want them to be happy. And all signs do point to the fact that Leonard and Sandra would indeed be a good match.
Leonard, however, has also met the wrong kind of woman. Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), a shiksa that has sprung fully-blond from out of a Philip Roth novel, is a neighbour who takes refuge in Leonard’s family apartment in order to escape her ranting, half-crazy father. She is a bundle of problems: a legal assistant involved in a self-destructive affair with a partner of the firm (making it worse, she lives in an apartment he rents for her, and so has become his dependent), a former drug abuser now sliding back into her habit, and a woman obsessed with the fantasy that her lover will one day leave his family and run off with her.
Michelle adopts Leonard as a friend and confidant, blinding herself – perhaps intentionally – to the all-too-obvious fact that Leonard has fallen in love with her. In Michelle, he believes he has found a love to replace the fiance taken from him by parents worried about his mental stability. His new object of passion is as deeply flawed as he is, and, what is more, he can help her. He proves himself, again and again, more loyal, more faithful, and more loving than the rich sophisticated lawyer – doing so with an intensity that would be off-putting to any woman marginally less self-absorbed than Michelle.
His reward, inevitably, is a series of humiliations. Michelle invites him to dinner with her lover, Ronald Blatt (Elias Koteas), so that as a man (so she reasons) he can give her a ruling on whether Ronald is serious about her and will really leave his wife and child. Leonard arrives early and spends a number of minutes fidgeting at the table, ordering a brandy alexander (Ronald’s favourite drink) and then attempting to drink it through the mixing straw. “Would you like me to bring you a real straw?”, asks the waiter, matter-of-factly. “No, this is perfect,” Leonard bluffs, repressing what must be an agony of embarrassment. Later, Leonard rushes to Michelle’s side during a surprise miscarriage, taking her to the hospital and bringing her home again. He visits her the next day, only to be forced to hide behind her bedroom door when Ronald arrives unexpectedly, begging forgiveness for not being able to leave his wife the day before to see Michelle in hospital. She refuses to tell her lover what has happened, and sends him away – yet though Leonard is favoured with secret knowledge, it is clear that his own status is both subordinate to Ronald’s and undeclarable. “That was weird,” he says nonchalantly after Ronald has left. He is bluffing again.
A quiet work of tragic beauty – a work heightened by the honesty of its acting and the all-too-human limitations of its characters – Two Lovers is both a film about two lovers, and a film about two kinds of love – or perhaps more accurately, about two versions of the same kind of love. The love that Sandra feels for Leonard is a wifely version of the love that his parents have for him: it is benevolent, affectionate, protective, enduring. Sandra holds his hands over lunch one day, and notices deep scars on his wrists. Leonard pulls back in embarrassment, but Sandra seems both aware and accepting of his condition and his past. “I want to take care of you,” she says, and though spoken from the heart, her offer falls on deaf ears; he has been thinking too distractedly of Michelle throughout lunch, about her problems. Futile also – at least in the moment of expression – are the genuine attempts by his parents to help him. His father explains to him at the dinner table that he is merging his company with Cohen’s in order to give Leonard a future, and steady health insurance. It’s banal, but it really is love.
“It smells like moth balls”, Michelle observes innocently, upon entering the Kraditors’ apartment for the first and only time. The cosy family home is alien territory to her, and she passes through without changing it or being changed. She carries her home universe with her, she the magnetic sun at its centre, Leonard a candidate satellite. As she careens by his life, he senses in her a chance to escape his own past. By taking care of her, he would no longer be the wounded son in need of help. The roles would reverse; she the weak, needy, and confused, he the strong and wise. The bright light of this obsession, of this obsessive possibility, is what casts Sandra and her goodness into the shade. Leonard simply can’t see her for the glare.