trucking. While its (spoiler alert) tragic conclusion isn’t a surprise (though I think it’s unnecessarily cruel), we’re broken up anyway. Unlike Two Lovers, which feels ill-fated from the moment it starts, as High Art unrolls we unwisely start to believe that things will pick up following a years-long low point for one of its characters.
The film stars Radha Mitchell as Syd, a 24-year-old whose life has seemingly ossified in a way that many young 20-somethings have yet to experience. She holds an editor position at Frame, the photography magazine du jour. She and her boyfriend (Gabriel Mann) are in a committed
relationship and live with each other. A few things are still to be ideal. At work, she tends to still be treated like an intern, regularly getting her belittling boss and higher-level colleagues coffee and sandwiches when they need them. And her living situation, while comfortable, is decidedly unglamorous. Early in the movie, while she’s taking a bath, she feels water dripping on her forehead, and notices that the crack in the ceiling has started to leak.
The latter problem serendipitously leads Syd to realize that she’s more discontented with her life than she may have realized. Upon confronting her upstairs neighbors — once-in-demand photographer Lucy (Ally Sheedy) and former Rainer Werner Fassbinder muse Greta (Patricia Clarkson) — she develops a rapport with Lucy. In High Art, Syd will become a champion of Lucy’s work, and help her start the process of a comeback thanks to her magazine job. But the championing also comes with an insurgence of personal feelings — ones that both have never been experienced by Syd (if she’s ever been attracted to a woman, she didn’t act on her feelings) and help her reach a number of epiphanies about herself. But this is all bound for trouble. Greta is a heroin junkie, like most everyone in her and Lucy’s circle, and the latter has a rocky relationship with drugs herself.
I find the tragic ending of High Art unnecessarily dark. Why put a kill-off in the script when a relationship could just end? But the movie, otherwise, works well in equal measure as a romantic drama and a tale of self-discovery.
Cholodenko also does an excellent job of world-building. She gets us comfortable in Syd’s routine, allowing us to understand why she in many ways might be fulfilled by it. We simultaneously get acquainted with the druggy, dysfunctional environs as lived in by Lucy and her makeshift tribe. We get a feel for these spheres before they collide, ensuring that, when they do, we can sense the thrill of their merger while also detecting the danger lurking underneath.
The work done here by Sheedy, Mitchell, and Clarkson is astonishing. The dynamics are well-wrought by Cholodenko, who as efficiently establishes the attractions as she does the discord. But the actresses also make the inner lives Cholodenko fashions for them cogent. The film additionally presents drug addiction without melodrama and/or the normal and by now platitudinous addiction-rock bottom-recovery-relapse-recovery structure. How can it get pretty much everything right but have a finale that feels so off? The exceptional work done in High Art makes it worth watching, but where it ultimately lands put a wrong-feeling damper on what comes before it.
Two Lovers: A-
High Art: B+
ore bad decisions are made in High Art (1998), the breakthrough movie by Lisa Cholodenko. But the difference here is that many of its characters are aware of their bad decision-making but keep on
We gather, based on Ruth’s reaction, that Leonard is prone to concerning, impetuous behavior, and that it can sometimes be challenging to discern the seriousness of his latest crisis. But Leonard is never quite a tragicomic character. In the course of Two Lovers, we learn that his fiancée has recently left him, purportedly because he and his former flame carry the Tay-Sachs disease gene. He's also bipolar. Leonard has moved back in with his parents because he has few other options. He busies himself with photography and incessant movie-watching but not much else. He’s feeling his way out of life, and struggling.
Things become even more difficult for Leonard to navigate in Two Lovers. The title of the film comes from the complex relationships he develops with a pair of women shortly after the film’s bummer opening. One of them is Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a prospective business partner of Leonard’s father. The other is Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a neighbor. Sandra is genuinely nice and well-kempt. She knows who she is; she’s almost unnervingly stable in comparison to Leonard. A romance develops soon into the movie. Leonard doesn’t explicitly tell Sandra about his troubles, but she notices that he’s hurting and doesn’t mind. She tells him at one point in the movie that she loves him; then she lets him know that she wants to help him. It doesn’t matter to her that there will inevitably be moments down the road where she’ll be walking on broken glass with him.
Michelle, by contrast, is a tightrope walk embodied. She’s personable and charming; she has a fashionable
coolness to her. But in comparison to the rock-steady Sandra, she’s a melting glacier, begging those around her to help her out as if their bare hands could somehow reverse climate change. Michelle is having a torrid affair with her married boss (Elias Koteas); she is a recovering drug addict, who, shortly into the movie, relapses. Initially, she and Leonard are fast friends — they meet in the hallway one afternoon. But as her neediness becomes more pronounced in the matter of a few weeks (she calls Leonard every time she’s in a crisis, which is often), Leonard becomes increasingly enchanted. Even after it’s been established that he and Sandra are in a serious relationship, he would immediately give it up if to get a chance with Michelle. When he makes his feelings known during the film’s second act, Michelle is receptive. We cringe.
Nary a “right” decision is made in Two Lovers, at least by Leonard. The movie watches as he (wrongheadedly) figures out his concurrent relationships. He tones down Michelle’s role in his life to Sandra, pretends as though his romance with Sandra isn’t very serious to Michelle. To sit through Two Lovers is to experience something like a trainwreck. The film doesn’t side with Leonard as much as watch him badly pilot this twisty route he’s created for himself. As co-written and directed by James Gray, the movie — itself one of many adaptations of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s White Nights (1848) — is a well-realized nightmare scenario cooked up by an imprudent but likable protagonist. Not a thing the sensitive and compassionate (until he isn’t) Leonard does here is well thought out. But what makes Two Lovers fairly great is how correct it feels even when the people in it are making objectively incorrect choices.
These characters have been so perceptively written that we have no problem believing that everything they do here is something they would do. Gray and co-writer Richard Menello have made Michelle and Sandra a bit vague on purpose. We’re supposed to get to know them about as well as Leonard does, which is to say not very. But we’re given enough small details to put together who they probably are versus what Leonard has rendered them. We know that Michelle is dangerous for Leonard. Still, we can see why she’s alluring in comparison to Sandra — the latter is stable as to be innocuous, almost, whereas Michelle is thrilling.
The film gets an ending that’s depressing in how surface-level happy it is. The resolution it shows isn’t going to last; it’s like putting a Hello Kitty Band-Aid on a stab wound. But the beauty of Two Lovers is that it’s a movie where mostly every narrative development is a bound-to-be-doomed one but where none ring false. We’ve met people like these, and we’re familiar with hearing stories told years after their inception that have a similar what-were-they-thinking ethos. Two Lovers has the same kind of alarming plausibility.
Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers.
jumps off a bridge so close to the water that all the plunge gives him is a bad case of the shivers. (Leonard seems to have had suicide in mind.) When he comes home to his parents’ apartment sopping wet, his mother, Ruth (Isabella Rossellini), can tell exactly what’s gone down just by looking at her son up and down. When he leaves the room and she says to her husband and Leonard’s dad, Reuben (Moni Moshonov), that it looks like Leonard has tried again, she says so with equal parts worry, sympathy, and a subtle note of annoyance — a more pragmatic version of Harold's mother in Harold & Maude (1971). It's almost like she wants to say “oh, brother” but knows that she’d regret it later.
eonard (Joaquin Phoenix), the protagonist of Two Lovers (2008), doesn’t think things through very well. As the film opens, he impulsively
Two Lovers & High Art, Reviewed January 7, 2020
Two movies about dysfunctional romance