Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Two Lovers
by Daniel Witkin
With 213 IMDb credits and counting, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky has enjoyed a highly productive film career—in spite of his death before the medium’s conception. Alongside his credited output there exists the less quantifiable but more significant matter of his influence—not in literature, where his ornery ramblings have reverberated through the skulls of writers from Virginia Woolf to Thomas Bernhard, but in cinema. It’s an odd pairing, admittedly, between a writer best known for verbose interiority and a proudly visual medium; but it’s been uncommonly fruitful, with the writer’s tales of alienation, transgression, and urban modernity proving fertile for a number of filmmakers. What’s more, at least a handful of the films inspired by his work are actually good, including multiple Bressons and the recent Norte, the End of History, Lav Diaz’s four-and-a-half-hour riff on Crime and Punishment. Though it’s likely that many of its viewers were unaware of its literary origins, James Gray’s Two Lovers is an essential Dostoevsky film, engaged with many of the writer’s great themes and, crucially, illustrative of the ways that they must be reworked as they are brought into new settings—including some that would not have thrilled the author himself.
Two Lovers ventures boldly forth into familiar waters. Trafficking in a New York Jewishness instantly recognizable not only to the city’s inhabitants but also to anyone with a passing interest in U.S. pop culture since the sixties, the film pairs a neurotic young Jewish male (Joaquin Phoenix) with a blonde woman (Gwyneth Paltrow); meanwhile, his parents attempt to set him up with the nice Jewish daughter (Vinessa Shaw) of one his father’s business partners. Of course, the shallowness of the shiksa mythos only heightens its adaptability, and it’s worked well for Jewish-American entertainers from Jerry Lewis to Philip Roth to Woody Allen to Larry David, and has occasionally inspired greatness, notably Elaine May’s ingenious The Heartbreak Kid, the schlemiel fantasy’s acid-scorched point of no return. In today’s comic world of permeable fourth walls and meta-jokes about schtick, a patently played-out set-up is no great hindrance. What makes Gray’s film tricky is his insistence on playing the whole thing completely straight—even his protagonist’s cheeseball jokes are offered not for comedy or ridicule but characterization and pathos.
The other thing that makes Two Lovers a difficult project is the posthumous contribution of Fyodor Dostoevsky. This is because in addition to being a pioneering stylist, master of psychological detail, perspicacious analyst of ideology, and overall champion of what is known as “humanist art,” Dostoevsky was a vocal and enthusiastic anti-Semite. Therefore, alongside the already significant challenge of straddling the world of one of literature’s heftiest moral and psychological thinkers and the environs of contemporary Coney Island, the movie also attempts to apply Dostoevsky’s artistic practices to a people he disdained. This is interesting not only for combustible questions of stereotype and representation, but for the ways the filmmaker relates to his characters and works to render their internal and external worlds.
And it should be said that Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism was no minor quirk or a mere consequence of his surroundings, but unfortunately was the product of some thought. The clearest expression of his ideas on the matter are contained in his Diary of a Writer, a series of articles on current events for the Petersburg weekly Citizen. Readers moved by Dostoevsky’s Orthodox-inflected paeans to love for one’s fellow man in Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov may be unsettled to find that Dostoevsky’s religiosity inclined him toward a rather jingoistic appreciation for the Imperial State, in which the Church played an integral role, resulting in such Tsar-friendly treatises as “War. We Are Stronger Than the Rest” and “Once More on the Topic That Constantinople, Sooner or Later, Must Be Ours.”
In his articles on the Jews, published in four parts in March 1877, Dostoevsky comfortably alternates between oddly concrete defamations (“The Jews there have so assaulted the local Lithuanian population that they have almost ruined all of them with vodka”) and paranoid abstractions (“We are speaking about Judaism and the Jewish idea which is clasping the whole world instead of Christianity which ‘did not succeed’”). There’s not much to say about the writing itself, a blend of casuistry and malice that has the effect of making Dostoevsky sound like a sordid minor character from one of his own novels. But what’s notable about the articles is how utterly typical they are, tonally continuous with the racism of today, from incredulous protests that his innocent views are being misrepresented to cold, creepy certainty passed off as common sense. In the final article, “But Long Live Brotherhood,” Dostoevsky even adopts the tested racist tack of giving voice to all sorts of nice and lofty ideas about harmony between the peoples, just with conditions.
The contradiction between the writer’s humanist art and racist politics has not been lost on Dostoevsky scholars, who are themselves disproportionately Jewish. But perhaps the most poignant reflection on this mind-boggling disconnect is the novella Summer in Baden-Baden by Russian-Jewish doctor Leonid Tsypkin, whose experiences writing the book with no hope of publication in his native Soviet Union, and being personally and professionally persecuted until his death at the age of 56—shortly after being denied an exit visa—gave him a miserably splendid perspective from which to discuss both literature and anti-Semitism. In his book, Tsypkin juxtaposes a fictionalized account of Dostoevsky’s trip to the casino town of Baden-Baden alongside his young wife with his own trip from Moscow to the writer’s home in St. Petersburg. Visiting his aunt in a meticulously detailed apartment that could have come from a film by James Gray, Tsypkin opens a copy of Dostoevsky’s Diary and thinks, “It struck me as strange to the point of implausibility that a man so sensitive in his novels to the sufferings of others, this jealous defender of the insulted and the injured who fervently and even frenetically preached the right to exist of every earthly creature and sang a passionate hymn to each little leaf and every blade of grass—that this man should not have come up with a single word in the defense or justification of a people persecuted over thousands of years—could he have been so blind?—or perhaps he was blinded by hatred.”
It seems to me that the paradox of Dostoevsky’s hatred is something that would not be lost on James Gray—both because of his Russian-Jewish ethnic background and because of his art itself, based on a downright anachronistic commitment to characterization, valuing a nearly invasive level of depth and detail over any ideas of what a person is supposed to be. In an indie scene dominated by surface quirks and big gestures, Gray appears content to meticulously delineate the full tangle of his characters’ emotional lives with artful precision but no obvious comment. His crime flicks and love stories have an unabashed affective sweep that flags them as melodrama, yet with a lack of overstatement or overt self-consciousness that puts them out of place in a genre that traditionally thrives on excess. Perhaps he would be championed by certain elements as a corrective to our jaded age, but for his admirably total avoidance of the giddy, defensive nostalgia of the New Sincerity.
Two Lovers is based on Dostoevsky’s 1848 story “White Nights,” which also inspired Luchino Visconti’s glamorous Le notti bianche (1957) and Bresson’s excellent, criminally unavailable Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971). The plot of the original story concerns a young man and woman who encounter each other one night in St. Petersburg, and carry on a series of long conversations over four nights. While this setup might seem terminally bookish, it also offers the elementally cinematic experience of walking around a city alone at night and looking at things, not to mention an emotionally intense though short-lived random encounter, that great sustaining hope of lonesome aesthetes all over. However inwardly oriented a writer, Dostoevsky’s understandings of insecurity, rationalization, and desire allow him to depict the subtleties of how people perceive their surroundings with vivid energy. One clue to his cinematic longevity might be his commitment to the question of what people see when they look at the world.
In a recent episode of the podcast The Cinephiliacs, Gray talked a little bit about “White Nights,” connecting it to the later, better known Notes from Underground, whose protagonists he sees to be afflicted with the condition poetically known as manic depression. To this end, in Two Lovers, we are introduced to Joaquin Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor when he attempts to drown himself in Sheepshead Bay. The scene is depicted in a visceral manner, vividly evoking Leonard’s subjectivity and thereby permanently canceling out of the possibility of light romantic comedy. Already the stakes are raised in a way that will turn some off of the movie entirely, but force others to reckon with the suffering and destructiveness beneath Leonard’s clownish exterior.
This is necessary; for Leonard, not unlike the unnamed protagonist of “White Nights,” Raskolnikov, all of the Karamazovs or, for that matter, Tsypkin’s Dostoevsky, is a man-child. Not in the manner of Judd Apatow’s gangs of attractive losers—it is indicative of Leonard’s situation that he enjoys no real male companionship—but in the sense of a grown man who displays a childlike trust in his immediate feelings, a character trait that’s refreshing and endearing as well as scary. The tacit threat that Leonard presents to himself and others keeps the movie taut as it navigates the perilous path between starry-eyed lost-souls romance and the dreaded friend zone narrative. We feel Leonard’s need for connection even as we squirm in response to the ways he pursues it.
Other characters are given similarly fleshed-out inner lives. Paltrow’s Michelle is never presented as the dream girl Leonard imagines her to be, and is quickly revealed to be as enthralled by another man as Leonard is by her. Shaw’s Sandra demonstrates a practical empathy that makes her patience with Leonard—the movie’s thinnest plot point—believable if not entirely convincing. Minor characters also buck our expectations. Leonard’s Jewish mother (an excellent Isabella Rossellini) spies on him and intrudes, but is poignantly willing to let go of him when it counts. Michelle’s main squeeze, played by Elias Koteas, is given a treatment significantly more complex and sympathetic than that usually extended to white-collar adulterers. A successful lawyer from deep Brooklyn, he’s not far off from what Leonard might have become had an earlier suicide attempt not derailed his law school career.
While overturning stereotypes can be admirable and refreshing, it is not a formula for Great Art. What makes Two Lovers a significant work, as well as an authentically Dostoevskian movie, is how it develops certain ideas of romantic love with intellectual complexity and emotional force. Gray has a talent for balanced contrasts (a trait that’s less Dostoevsky than Tolstoy), setting Leonard’s relationships with the two women against each other while democratically refraining from emphatically throwing in his directorial weight with either one. Sandra, Leonard’s family’s choice for him, primarily exists indoors, within domestic spaces. After they share their first kiss against a wall of Kraditor family photographs, the evolution of their relationship is shown through a series of black-and-white images that resembles a family album. Michelle, conversely, is largely encountered outdoors, in glamorous Manhattan or on the windy roof the apartment complex where her and Leonard both live. The movie’s most carefully measured motif alternates communications and observations through the windows leading out to their shared courtyard. Existing tantalizingly on the other side of the glass, Michelle comes to represent for Leonard the possibility of love as escape.
This comes to a head in the film’s dizzying rooftop love scene, in which Leonard pleads with Michelle to accept him as a romantic being. On one hand, it’s the ne plus ultra of the film’s stylistic romanticism, bathing its protagonists in a wan, magic hour light that’s not inconsequentially the closest approximation of the legendary northern white nights that one is likely to find in Brooklyn in winter. Yet on the other, Phoenix pushes Paltrow against a brick wall, ushering in an uncommonly claustrophobic vision of lovemaking. Using a desperate, dysfunctional romantic encounter as a sort of psychic petri dish, the scene recalls the climax of Notes from Underground, in which the protagonist confesses, “What she clearly did understand was that I was a loathsome man and that, above all, I was incapable of loving her… I always imagined love as a struggle, and always embarked on it with hatred and ended it with moral subjugation.”
Dostoevsky here posits one’s incapacity for love as the most damning consequence of psychological dysfunction, and Leonard’s desperate appeal to Michelle suggests that it’s a fate that he is particularly keen to avoid. “You think I don’t know what love is?” he needily intones, “…I do know you and I do love you. I’m fucked up too.” Yet it seems unlikely that Leonard achieves delivery from his condition through Michelle’s acquiescence. The characters remain clothed, and their arrhythmic, rocking embrace is less suggestive of release than immobilization. What makes Two Lovers genuinely subversive is how it takes Dostoevsky’s diagnosis and expands it, slyly insinuating that romantic desire is in fact a product of these selfsame maladies of the head. If, as it’s said, all of Renoir’s characters have their reasons, Gray’s are burdened with imperatives of feeling. This rather fatalistic perspective is not just un-trendy, it’s downright alien to a cultural landscape dedicated in both its high and low permutations to the veneration of decisive individual action. And while Gray’s is not an ecstatic outlook, it’s generally a humane one, sympathetic to the suffering of others while remaining highly critical of their desires and mental patterns.
In this way, there’s something of Tsypkin’s designation of Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism as “strange to the point of implausibility” that betrays a certain naiveté about our Western cultural inheritance, in which the most beautiful ideas about life and people have been thought up only to be applied with a baffling and malicious selectivity. Yet if Dostoevsky himself failed to live up to the ideals of his artistic project, rooted in open engagement with individual people—a demographic inclined without exception towards maddening inconsistency—the stakes of that project are no less high. Like Dostoevsky at his best, or his conflicted disciple Leonid Tsypkin, Gray manages to show the uglier side of his characters without romanticizing it. Though Dostoevsky is perhaps best loved for the manic extremities of his thought and language, this way of thinking also offers a way to deal with—and learn from—the inevitable lulls and disappointments. It’s not for nothing that Leonard, unlike the heroes of “White Nights” and Notes from Underground, appears to learn from his experience after Michelle has left, choosing life with Sandra over the maintenance of fantasy.