Sunday, January 2, 2011

Immaculate Suffering

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2009)

James Gray’s Two Lovers may sound conventional and inherently minor, but I was enthralled by it. Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard, living with his parents in a New York Brighton Beach apartment, working in their dry cleaning business, dabbling in photography on the side. On the same day he tries and fails to kill himself, he meets Sandra, also a dry-cleaning heiress, who quickly falls genuinely in love with him. He sleeps with her and manifests all signs of entering into a real relationship, but meanwhile obsesses over Heather, a neighbour (Gwyneth Paltrow) tortured in turn over her affair with a married man.

Two Lovers

Put that way, it sounds like a classic choice between responsibility and recklessness, not so far removed from the virgin or the whore. It seems plain to me, and rather shockingly so, that Leonard really doesn’t love Sandra at all, or perhaps even particularly like her. He seduces her on impulse, almost certainly thinking of the other woman (as they lie in bed afterwards, the camera drifts away through the window and traverses the building towards Heather’s apartment); he disregards her, breaks appointments, and seems increasingly willing to cause her immense pain apparently without even registering it. The cruelty is all the more striking since Leonard’s past suicidal depression flows from a failed engagement, and at other times he’s remarkably empathetic, playing the idealized (implicitly, perhaps, gay) male confidant to Heather. It’s certainly one of the sharpest recent films about the human (particular male, I guess) capacity for compartmentalization. Phoenix perfectly pulls together Leonard’s complexities; it’s probably his best performance (and by the way, my money says he’s just teasing us with all the recent weird stuff) – the same might go for Paltrow too.

At the same time, Two Lovers has the feeling of a profound existential mystery. The elements of Leonard’s life are vividly rendered: the cluttered apartment, looking like a Jewish heritage museum and smelling, as Heather mentions (as if we couldn’t guess) like mothballs; the dry cleaning milieu; Leonard’s photographs, mostly of desolate urban landscapes; the Rear-Window like use of the building’s topography; rickety Brighton Beach contrasted with the gleaming promise (no matter how false) of high-end Manhattan, where Heather works; text messages and ring tones and Internet searches. The film is extremely meticulous (some might find it lumbering) in charting all of this; as arbitrary and ill considered as Leonard’s actions might be, there’s a strong feeling of predestination, almost like a heavily displaced version of Antonioni’s The Passenger. It’s further flavoured by the pervasive sense of arrested development – the protagonists (or the actors anyway) are all in their 30’s, but still either living with their parents or at least dominated by them, implicitly having let too much time and too many options get away from them already.

This culminates in a superb ending where, depending on your reading, Leonard either finally attains some rationality and maturity, or else utterly loses his soul. Or, of course, both. Gray’s last film We Own The Night had lots of points of interest, but the logistical demands of the sprawling melodrama seemed to drag things down, and it was hard to grasp the director within it. With Two Lovers he finds, like so many fine filmmakers before him, that there’s frequently greater profundity in the small machinations of conventional lives than in trying to save the world.

Shall We Kiss?

There are only a few weeks a year when a big-star American film is substantially more scintillating than a French one on vaguely similar lines, but this is one of them. Un baiser, s’il vous plait (Shall We Kiss), written and directed by Emmanuel Mouret, stars Mouret as well as a man whose platonic long-time friend (Virginie Ledoyen) agrees to sleep with him to help him over a bad patch. Unexpectedly, they develop the hots for each other, then decide they’re truly in love, but she won’t move in with him until her quietly loving husband is set up with someone else. This is all in flashback, told over dinner by a woman to a man she just met, and from whom, she suspects, just one kiss might set off a similar narrative.

It’s a sterile film, consisting for long stretches of contrived, stilted exchanges between misdirected actors; I’ve never seen Ledoyen so dull in particular. It does have some structural interest, evolving in a modestly unexpected, and moderately bleak, direction. But Mouret just doesn’t evidence any intuitive feel for the complexity of human interactions; it often feels like a computer program carried out a big chunk of the behind-the-camera responsibilities. Well, maybe that applies to some of the acting too. All of that said, if you like this kind of French stuff (and I do), this is probably the kind of thing you like.


Hunger is the first film by artist Steve McQueen, and it’s a remarkable debut. The setting is Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in the early 80’s. A group of Republican prisoners, mere criminals in the eyes of the British government, insist on obtaining political status. They protest by refusing all hygiene, and later through a series of carefully coordinated hunger strikes.

The film is wrenching at times: the beatings by the guards and the ultimate starvation of the lead martyr Bobby Sands are as painful to watch as in a documentary. But it also resembles an immense multi-faceted art installation, with numerous points of entry and exit. The first ten minutes or so focus on one of the prison guards, unflinching in carrying out his brutal duty, but bleeding an inner sense of loss and fear. The next twenty minutes belong to two other prisoners, before it later shifts to Sands. A long central conversation between Sands and a Catholic priest suggest a different formal and tonal road not taken. The film sometimes recalls one of Kubrick’s filmic labyrinths (The Shining or even 2001) but without ever bastardizing the potency of the central human experience.

McQueen also brings to this a tough-minded awareness of how the extremes of human suffering and ugliness shimmer with iconographic possibility. The ultimate example, the crucifixion, is referred to several times here, and no question there’s a knowingly Messianic aspect to some of the captives’ suffering. In that exchange I mentioned, the priest’s upper hand on rationality seems merely facile set against Sands’ burning, primal conviction. Even the prisoners’ most self-debasing behaviour, such as their excrement-covered cell walls, show an attention to composition; perhaps the most compelling proof that theirs is an act of principled objection rather than savagery.

In the end though, Hunger is a serious work of historical reconstruction, for example putting up a closing series of captions (as would a more conventional film) reminding us of the grim facts. Even here, McQueen’s judgment is immaculate in refusing to draw too explicitly the links from the hunger strikers’ sacrifice to later peace-process breakthroughs. Startlingly well balanced, his film uses their story in immense, audacious ways, without getting tangled up in political or artistic grandstanding.

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