What makes a happy man? From writer-director James Gray (who gave us the underrated 2001 film, The Yards), Two Lovers takes for its subject a single emotionally-damaged young man utterly lost in his search for happiness. Capably played by Joaquin Phoenix, Leonard begins the film by attempting to drown himself, not the first time he’s tried suicide, we’ll eventually discover. Unsuccessful, he immediately finds himself in the sights of his well-meaning, matchmaking parents.
Through them he meets Sandra, the delicate daughter of a family friend. Of Jewish heritage like Leonard, she promises a stable life approved by Leonard’s parents, though with that stability will come routine and responsibility. Sandra will also provide a constant reminder of Leonard’s former fiancée, a woman he loved deeply but whose parents broke off the engagement.
The connection between Leonard and Sandra is evident, but quickly fades when confronted with the radiant glow of Leonard’s damaged neighbor, Michelle. Leonard meets Michelle on the landing in front of his apartment as she listens to a man cuss her out from upstairs. That it might not actually be her father never occurs to Leonard, who’s too busy basking in her beauty and bowled over by her interest in talking with him. But her anything-goes attitude coupled with her status as a Gentile (outside the strict structure of his family life) offers Leonard something different, a move away from the painful past. Michelle draws him to look outside his world of family and tradition for the happiness he so desperately seeks.
The film proceeds by following Leonard’s alternating affections for Sandra and then Michelle. Meanwhile, Leonard’s emotional instability seemingly lays in wait, preparing to rear its ugly head at an inopportune moment. That Gray holds that card for so long without playing it is a testament to his skill as a writer, for it leaves the film with a palpable sense of life and death drama playing out before us. Further, Gray’s careful observation of his characters, his mobile camera, and his occasional evocative framing give the film a thoughtful air that draws the viewer into the central dilemma of the film.
In the end, Two Lovers presents Leonard with a choice between the film’s titular characters—the fun-loving, beautiful, but unstable Michelle, or the quiet, delicate, but supportive Sandra. One holds the promise of throwing off the constraints of family and expectations for the opportunity to fulfill his every desire. The other offers a simple, if unexciting life filled with hard work, children, and obligation. Unsurprisingly, Leonard ultimately chooses the former, just at the moment Michelle’s unstable situation places her out of Leonard’s reach. Leonard, jilted by the woman he believes is his true love, stands alone in a barred courtyard with only two choices before him: Sandra or death.
Gray’s deft move from the choice between two women to the choice between life and death highlights the significance of this moment for Leonard. That he ultimately chooses life seems less a sign of resignation and more an indication of a profound truth—that perseverance through suffering produces hope. In hope all things seem possible. Even finding happiness in a life that doesn’t promise to fulfill every whim and desire he might have.