The beginning of the shooting of The lost City of Z, the next James Gray movie (the story of a 1925 expedition to Amazonia) is a good opportunity to look back on a leitmotiv that reappears throughout his filmography: nightclubs.
At the beginning of The Yards, his second feature, James Gray offers us a first immersion into the world of the night with Willie’s arrival at the Club Rio. This young thug from Queens at the beginning of the eighties, embodied by Joaquin Phoenix, treads familiar ground. At the helm of his group, with his gorgeous girlfriend at his arm (Erica, embodied by Charlize Theron), the young man, loaded with money, shakes hand with the bouncers and buys round of drinks, all under the impressed gaze of Leo, his best buddy (Mark Wahlberg), who is freshly out of jail. In the distance, Erica, Leo’s cousin, is dancing and Leo watches her. If (a priori) one doesn’t sleep with family, this moment marks the starting point of the underlying stake of the story: the love triangle.
This stake is emphasized by the aesthetics of the scene: spots illuminating Erica in a carnal red color and close frames highlighting her sensuality. Adding to this element is the very contrasting characterization of the two main characters – the communicative leader and the introverted shy-guy – a contrast on a sentimental and human scale that foreshadows an imminent confrontation. As a first clue, Willie punches to a stranger who dares to dance with Erica. Finally, on top of the heavy colorimetry use of red, the “Samba de Janeiro” song, which possesses a sonor volume that contrasts with up until then rather minimalist soundtrack, further stresses the extraordinary characteristic of this festive moment.
It’s a festive moment that we will find again in the opening scene of We own the night, the third film of James Gray. But, if in The Yards the world of the night only appears at the time of a scene, it is from now on one of the constitutive elements of the story. We are now in 1988 and Joaquin Phoenix is Bobby, the manager of the most notorious club in Brooklyn. He’s welcome in the first seconds of the film by Amada (Eva Mendes), lasciviously lying on the “so eighties” sofa of his office. The scene takes place in slow-motion, the colors are warm, and « Heart of Glass » from the New York band Blondie is playing. The foreplay starts, with a close up, a breast is kissed, a hand slides down a pair of panties. But it stops there, Jumbo, Bobby’s friend calls him. It’s madness downstairs, girls are dancing naked on the bar and a fight breaks out.
If we find some similarities on a narrative scale between this scene and that from The Yards (the eighties, a display of success), as much as on an artistic scale (the warm colors and the loud music covering the diegetic sound), in that scene our point of view changes. The spectator no longer observes the display of success of Joaquin Phoenix through the eyes of someone else, but is now on his side. This is an approach that takes on full significance when Bobby comes out of his office: at his feet, is the throbbing crowd, dancing and screaming – we are, as well as him, the kings of the night.
Yet, the similarities do not end here. James Gray uses this scene to paint the character embodied by Joaquin Phoenix, but also to position him toward Amada. We guess the narrative importance of this positioning as the director chose to begin his movie with a sex scene.
Of course, this state of grace won’t last. As in The Yards, the fighting outbreak is the first clue to the pervasive and subjacent violence that surrounds their carefree bubble. By staging a sequence that is stylised both on the narrative and formal levels, James Gray makes it the positive counterpoint to the rest of the story. Warm tones will give way to bleak colors, overwhelming disco music to a minimalist soundtrack, and love, casualness and friendship will fade.
In his two previous movies, nightclubs are the time and place where the main plot is inextricably tied with another one, devoted to the characters’ emotions ; in Two Lovers this location is inherent to the romance that is the one and only subject matter of the movie.
For this fourth installment, Joaquin Phoenix (again) is Leonard, a thirty-year-old man still living at his parents’ at the beginning of the 2000’s. He enters a nightclub because of the feisty Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who he barely knows but madly loves. She’s the one who has access to the VIP area and knows the bouncers. Leonard takes part in a dance battle going on inside and busts some moves to show off. The sequence is a wonderful tribute to Marcello Mastroianni’s improvised dance in Visconti’s White Nights. Up to this moment, Leonard was stuck in his stifling home environment, with parents who have his love and work life all mapped out, and for the first time he lets loose and goes wild. Through this new perspective, he’s no longer the introverted man overwhelmed by his family we knew ; he’s a seductive one man party, able to dazzle audiences. He then dances and embraces Michelle. But this bliss won’t last : she gets a text from her boyfriend (so she has a boyfriend), he’s not coming. It gets her down, she doesn’t feel well, she’s calling it a night and going home. As short as this moment was, the nightclub embodies everything Michelle is to Leonard : joy and freedom, a carefree and full of the unexpected life. This magical moment is transcended by the direction : an infinity of colors flickers on the many faces, with spotlights and backlighting and an external soundtrack that take us in a kind of parallel universe. But the wake up call will only be more painful, as soon as Leonard gets out to find a distressed Michelle everything crumbles.
Beyond common narrative motifs (New York, romance, a young lover showing off), it’s the direction that makes these scenes become crucial crossing points for the characters, whose idyllic vision is about to come crashing down. They are powerful, loved, attractive, but the visual dichotomy between those sequences and the rest of the movies reminds us constantly that those moments are fleeting. This feeling is enhanced by what nightclubs themselves represent : a place where the image presented by people is better than themselves, which, of course, can’t last.
There will probably not be a nightclub scene in James Gray’s next movie, but his interest in nightlife is so obvious that we can find a translation of its themes (showmanship, lust, to see and be seen) in his last picture, The Immigrant, in which Joaquin Phoenix (again and again) roams the underworld of New York in the 1920’s. There’s no doubt that this obsession should be found in a similar sequence of The Lost City of Z.