Admittedly, there is not a single explicit reference to Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales in Two Lovers, but I could not help but see James Gray’s film as a sort of update and revision of Rohmer’s largely internal stories of men who fall for a woman, are tempted by a different woman, and ultimately return to the first. Rohmer’s characters are young, collegiate, artsy, and have a lot of time to sit around in cafes and coffee shops—in short, very 1960s-Paris, or at least as the French New Wave portrayed it. In the first of these, The Bakery Girl of Monceau, the man sees a woman on the street all the time and, after much deliberation, musters up the courage to talk to her, but shortly thereafter he stops seeing her—unbeknownst to him, she is at home sick in bed. There are no cell phones to text or social media to track someone down on. What’s gone is gone. And so the man eventually finds himself flirting with a girl at a bakery he frequents, only to, by chance, run into the first girl again.
That could never happen in 2008, the setting of Two Lovers. Technology wouldn’t allow it. And indeed, in Gray’s film, Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is constantly getting calls from Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) when he is on dates with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw); texts are a major form of communication, with Michelle even telling Leonard at one point to “put your number in my phone so we can, like, text.” There is no time to hang around coffee shops and bakeries. Characters are constantly saying they need to check their schedule, dates are canceled because of conflicts, parties and social engagements are so numerous that Leonard can’t keep track. This is 21st century New York City, and everyone is always busy.
As with Rohmer’s characters, Leonard meets Sandra and takes a bit of a liking to her (although she takes more of one to him). Shortly thereafter, he meets Michelle and falls much harder for her, but both Sandra’s family and his own keep trying to set up the initial couple. To make it more complicated, Michelle is having her own relationship problem. But in today’s fast-paced environment Rohmer’s uniting theme, the gap between what one claims to want and what one actually does, ideas vs. reality undergoes a major makeover. Bakery Girl of Monceau is a great film in part because nothing happens. Every image and possibility is filtered through the consciousness of its protagonist in voiceover. The movie takes place in his head. It could never happen in today’s busy world, and so Gray’s film resorts to melodrama, a mode of storytelling defined by action. Forces acting on characters define them, are filtered through personal sensibilities, and then pushed back out into the world, traditionally in a way that will uncover moral right. Ideas of love and happiness have to be played out in the real world rather than internally in order to (re)-establish virtue.
In short, the melodrama came about largely because of the secularization of values. As people turned away from the governance of religion and as “modernity” approached, there was a population-wide existential crisis of sorts because it wasn’t clear as to why they should be good and right. The melodrama—arguably the start of “mass” culture—acted out this crisis on stage (and later screen) and always concluded with the reassertion of moral virtue in the secular world—the “traditional sacred,” as Peter Brooks calls it in The Melodramatic Imagination, is found to be as applicable in the modern world as the old one. Later, directors like Sirk and Ray found that the form is equally apt for bringing issues typically brushed under the rug (such as the suppression of women or the failings of patriarchy) to the fore, but moral right was always found in the end (even if, say, Bigger Than Life, took it to parodic extremes).
Freed from expectations of a happy ending and operating in a system in which psychological realism is the go-to mode of storytelling even more than before, Gray’s films suggest that the traditional and sacred values—a nice woman, a comfortable future, strict loyalty to the family—aren’t so unquestionably great after all. Unlike Rohmer’s characters, he never prefers the initial woman, and he does not go back to her, but rather gets stuck with her. “You’re crying,” she tells him as he takes the wedding ring that, unbeknownst to her, was actually purchased for Michelle. “That’s because I’m happy,” he responds. So much for the traditional sacred acting as a moral compass, Two Lovers says.