06/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cannes 2008: No Love in Two Lovers

I loved James Gray's new film, Two Lovers, not for the story -- which may, in the telling, seem banal -- but for the way it is told and the vision behind it. Leonard, a loser in Brooklyn, heir to a Jewish drycleaning business, falls in love with a sexy blonde neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is herself in love with an obnoxious rich married lawyer, who keeps her on a string with luxury nights to opera and restaurants. The parents of the loser (played exquisitely by Joachin Phoenix) would like him to marry their partner's daughter (to consolidate the business), and she in turn, a good girl, falls in love with him while sitting on his bed discussing her favorite movie: The Sound of Music. "Yes, it is underrated," notes Leonard dryly, with the irony characteristic of the film.

No one finds mutual love. Each says to the other: "You deserve to be loved", while the recipient of the sentiment longs for someone else.

From the first shot, the mood of despair gains aesthetic stature: lonely Leonard jumps off a bridge in a blue-grey morning, and is reprimanded by those who save him for not being thankful enough. The film is rich in similar minimalist shots: Leonard declaring his love on a rooftop, to the rather disinterested Paltrow, while seagulls cry in the distance and morning churchbells ring; Leonard watching his dark reflection in the subway glass, while behind him a couple hugs; and then, at the end, his dismal view of a non-responsive ocean, which tosses back his discarded black glove.

At the film's conclusion, Leonard has compromised his real love, and we have a final wide-shot of the new pair hugging on the couch, while two champagne glasses go by, carried by a party guest. The irony of this shot, and its loneliness, is breathtaking.

"There is no moment of pure satisfaction in your film," I said to James Grey who, in a loose grey t-shirt and slacks, slumped sideways on the lobby chair across from me, establishing the casual tone of our chat. "Isn't that right? No pure satisfaction. No real union. It's quite a pessimistic view."

"Do you think life is pure satisfaction, happiness?" Gray retorted easily. "Of course not. Whose life is that? Life is disappointing, don't you think? Being in love is a preposterous state. What we desire is made of our lack -- that is Jacques Lacan. I read a poem by Louis Aragon: 'In vain your image comes to meet me. Where I am the only one who finds it.' I wanted to make a picture of parallel lines of desire, based on projection. The only pure conception is based on hopes, dreams, projections. Come on, do you think there is satisfaction in life?"

I had plenty of experiences to confirm his assertion -- and I shared my disjunctions with Gray, who confided his own.

"Couples are an effect of chance," he concluded. "If my wife was wearing some different sort of outfit when I met her, maybe not only would she not be my wife, but I would never have gone over to talk to her. If there is that much chance in my encounter with my wife, you have to say love is precarious."

"So am I right in seeing this as a film about loneliness?"

"It's an extremely lonely film," Gray smiled in his mysterious gentle way. "Certainly Leonard is lonely. Aren't people lonely?"

"Well," I said. "Not everyone. Not if you have a wife and two kids, for example."

"I do have a wife and two kids," Gray said. "And I wake up sometimes, in the middle of the night, my wife sleeping next to me, and I can tell you, I am lonely then. You realize you are all alone in the world. You can't have absolute intimacy all the time."

"I like your aesthetics of loneliness," I said. "You seem to capture it with off-sounds. I noticed the seagulls crying, for example, in the background of that rooftop scene. Is this on purpose?"

"In movies, you have to think what will work on a person unconsciously. The seagulls seemed a very lonely sound. It just feels that way. I wanted to emphasize that state of soul. My aesthetics are deceptively simple, high on theme, short on cinematic pyrotechnics. I aim for elegance and emotion. Light. Ambiguity."

He continued: "For example, in the first roof scene, when he comes up in the morning and says to the girl, 'I have deep empathy for you': I don't tell the audience where to look. The camera is on both the man and the woman. It's a democratic form of cinema. In the second scene on the roof, we used one shot, with high wide angle. We see the characters in profile. The camera is moving a lot. I hope it's not too dizzy."

"No, it's quite calm." The rhythm of Gray's film is gentle, musical; each scene engrossingly cinematic, as so little happens, so little clutters the set.

Indeed the film not only feels musical, its occasional music is superb, especially in the closing shot. After the screening, I had waited with many other eager audience members to see what the music score was, to no avail as the credits (and the press book) kept mum.

Gray smiled. "Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescont. It's Puccini's waltz tune, re-orchestrated by Christopher Spelman. And it's a contra bass harp when Joachim is on the beach."

"You know," I mentioned. "A critic leaving the screening said that if you do not like Gray's film, you are missing a heart." The man had thumped on his chest.

"Oh no," said Gray.

"Oh no?"

"Heart! How sentimental. I wish he had said, it means you have no soul."