Is this film romantic? I ask this because I sincerely don’t know. I liked this film and I don’t think I should have. Dissonance abounds. Do those who seek out/need romance infuse it into places where it really doesn’t exist? One could easily be turned off by this film by interpreting Joaquin Phoenix‘s characterization as a borderline stalker-like weirdo (though perhaps more accurately bi-polar obsessive). A particular critic referred to the character as a “tragic asshole” (a fair viewpoint). But I don’t think this is what director James Gray had in mind (or Phoenix either, for that matter). For most of the film, Gwyneth Paltrow plays a rather similarly unsympathetic character (in my eyes) and Vinessa Shaw plays a severely underdeveloped one.
Yet, for all these flaws, the main themes of the film are more clearly rich than most modern romances (which aren’t all that grounded in anything resembling reality anyway). This might have something to do with it being a “loose adaptation” of Dostoevsky’s White Nights“. The film feels like a classical tragedy, but it’s not exactly that. What it is is a character study of a character who doesn’t quite know what he’s doing or what he is feeling. I choose to interpret Phoenix’s character as a honest one, and because of this a (dangerously) sympathetic one.
He is torn between two lovers. It is not a cliche. It is not a gift wrapped in a curse. It just is. What it provides is revelation for its main character, or in strictly literary terms, a true, unspoken epiphany. And because it’s unspoken you are left to your own devices to figure out what he truly feels about this. Maybe this is what I liked most about the film. You feel what you want about the characters based on what you bring to the film. There is no emotional prodding of the audience into choosing one character over the other or judgmental agendas set forth by the writer/director. The characters are allowed to play out as if in life, with a minimum of expositonal information. Regardless of what you think should happen, there are no surprise punches.
In the end, as in the moment, there can only ever be two lovers. No more.
Gray has journeyed completely out of his previous three, over-characterized (in number) crime-fueled pictures into a, dare I say, exceptionally crafted actor’s picture. I just want to mention that Elias Koteas is in this in a small role too, simply because he is one of my favorite underused actors. Isabella Rossellini is also magnificent in what I would normally deem a waste of so little time given. And for all the Paltrow haters, she hasn’t been this good since Hard Eight (a film and character not too dissimilar), excepting whether you count Proof as possibly decent because of or in spite of the stage play. I don’t want to hype this up too much, but it is a truly surprising piece of work that is both seemingly unremarkable in its delivery, but uncommonly complex in its presentation.
I promised myself I would start making more comparisons to other films, because I’m a movie brat and that’s what’s expected of me, even though I would prefer all films to stand on their own in a ideal sense. That and I don’t always have the best sense right away of what to compare something to. So, I hesitantly recommend/name-check Carnal Knowledge, maybe the parts of Eyes Wide Shut that weren’t a dream (that’s a joke I guess, because you can’t tell which parts), some arty Bresson or Bergman I haven’t seen yet, or some sort of period romance (like The Age of Innocence, maybe?). I have the instinctual urge to find comparisons with Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain too, even though I haven’t read it (though I keep meaning to, so maybe that’s why).