Two Lovers is the latest retelling of Dostoevsky’s White Nights and although Visconti’s Le notti bianche so beautifully retold the story, Two Lovers is a welcome reworking of the subject. Where as Le notti bianche had the claustrophobic feel of post war Italy, with its impoverished inhabitants seemingly unable to even populate their own towns, but still feeling as if the narrow streets and years of tradition were constraining the oppressing the people, Two Lovers has the claustrophobic feel of a Jewish family with its community and traditions. In both films it is the tension between the main character’s desire to escape the constraints through an idealized love and the pressure to be part of some sort of ordinariness that drives the narrative.
As the film opens Leonard (Joaquin Pheonix) is crossing a dock and suddenly jumps into the water. It is a suicide attempt, but he is unwilling to go through it. He is unsure of suicide even though life hasn’t been what he wanted. His parents, concerned by his earlier mental health problems, introduce him to the daughter of his dad’s soon to be business partner. The business partner is Jewish like his family and also live in Brighton Beach, and though they are welcoming they offer a world he already has: middle class, but not exciting. He likes the daughter yet she is more of the same.
Shortly after Leonard meets Elizabeth who lives the life he has always wanted: full of night clubs and excitement, unattached to family, to questions of who she is. Yet the rootlessness comes at a cost. Elizabeth is a former addict and lives in an apartment that her married lover pays for, but she has to wait for her lover to make time away from his wife before he will see her.
Ultimately, it is not so much the choice between the two women, but how he makes the choice that shapes the tenor of the movie. Leonard is a romantic and neurotic and uncertain. He knows how to take a chance and when Elizabeth leaves her lover because he was not at her side when she miscarried, Leonard makes his move. Leonard and Elizabeth after a tearful and intense sex of the rooftop of their apartment building, plan to move to San Fransisco together. It is an impulsive move indicative of Elizabeth’s troubles and Leonard’s dreaming. Leonard, though, is alive—he is finally escaping the family. As a true romantic he buys a ring for Elizabeth. It is obvious that Elizabeth who has just broken up with her lover is not ready for this, she just wants to escape, but Leonard is too obtuse, a dreamer caught in his own world of romance and escape.
Elizabeth changes her mind at the last moment and goes back to her boyfriend. Leonard, devastated, considers suicide again and returning to that first attempt at the beginning of the movie, he walks down to the seashore and looks as if he is going to walk into the water. He turns, though, back to the claustrophobia of his family, of their friends and realizes their is more stability with his girlfriend. It is not a music swelling moment, nor is it pessimistic, it is realistic, as if his dreams have not so much disappeared, but receded into the distance. The bitterness of the moment, a mix of anguish and the promise that although now it all seems so terrible now and will always be a melancholic part of his persona he still will be able to look back with just enough joy that the moment will become the melancholic hope that so typifies Italian Neorealism.
The conclusion is not surprising, perhaps, but it is fitting. Leonard is too unbalanced to live a wild rootless life. The clausterphobia of the film, so artly filmed, is not only what pushes Leonard away, but what shapes him and holds him together. He may not want to be the son-in-law of a dry cleaner, but he at some level feels safe in that world, and if he left the opposition that defines him would abate and he would be lost. It is not a romantic ending, but an ending that may actually bring him so sort of peace. A copule made of two troubled couples will only end in more trouble.