Neither a hot-blooded tale of sexual discovery like 2013 Palme d’or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color” nor a coolly alluring bauble like Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” Italian director Filippo Meneghetti’s debut feature “Two of Us” is an entirely unique and uniquely vital lesbian love story. The tale of two older women whose decades-long secret relationship is threatened after tragedy strikes covers emotional and thematic ground that transcends the sexual preferences of the two main characters.
This often-moving film, which premiered as part of the 2019 Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery program, is an affirmation of our universal desire for emotional intimacy and how the right connection can overcome all social and physical limitations. The fact that the relationship is between two lesbians well into their retirement years only makes the film even more quietly groundbreaking. This is big-city art-house cinema all the way, not only for the subject matter but because its commendable lack of melodrama can, at moments, render the film a bit cool to the touch. But all is forgiven, even the occasional schematic plot development, when arguing that love is able to not only survive tragedy but also be strengthened by it.
As in last year’s “The Heiresses,” a rare other example of a film to depict a lesbian couple of a certain age, “Two of Us” comes at its central relationship from an angle that promises some darkly-shaded intrigue. An arresting, foreshadowing dream sequence featuring a game of hide and seek gives way to our introduction to Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), pensioners living across the hall from each other in the same apartment building.
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But they’re not just neighbors. For decades, they’ve been passionately in love, a fact they’ve somehow managed to keep a total secret. For free-spirited Nina, this is less of an issue. For Mado, as Madeleine is nicknamed, she’s never been able to bring herself to tell her two adult children. She will have to fess up, however, after agreeing with Nina to sell her beautifully decorated apartment and run away with her to Rome, living out their remaining years where “we can be who we want.” But at her modest birthday party, Mado, with Meneghetti’s camera lingering over her in anticipation, backs down from her promise, leaving Nina enraged.
Meneghetti’s screenplay, written with Malysone Bovorasmy and Florence Vignon, deftly adds layers of thematic complexity that go beyond the facile, if touching, notion that love conquers all. Here he makes the argument that maintaining a lie, especially one that compounds itself with the passing of time, can take not only a mental toll but a physical one as well. Mado’s failure to relieve the burden of her secret, along with Nina’s explosively angry reaction, leads to her having a devastating stroke that renders her unable to move or speak. And since Nina is known to Mado’s family as nothing more than “the neighbor,” she is shut out of aiding in her recovery. This only makes Nina more desperate to see her secret love, convinced that their connection is strong enough to pull her out of her stroked-addled state.
When you consider how easily this tale of secrets and lies could have tipped over into melodrama, Meneghetti, who previously only directed shorts, scores big points for avoiding cliché. He also surprises us with the bold choice of handing the back half of the film to Nina. With Mado unable to move or speak, “Two of Us” becomes Nina’s show. Sukowa does not project a lot of warmth, which accounts for our occasional sense of emotional remove, but she still gives a hardworking performance that requires a lot from her. As for Chevallier, she makes the most of Mado’s limited mobility. Ever so subtle changes to her expressive eyes and mouth prove that Mado, to her great frustration, knows what’s unfolding around her but can do nothing about it. In its own way, her performance is deeply felt.
With Mado in the hospital, Nina processes her grief by sleeping in her lover’s bed and sulking around her own bare bones apartment, spying through the peephole. Soon after Mado returns home, her live-in caregiver, Muriel (Muriel Benazeraf), becomes suspicious of Nina’s constant offers to help and requests for a visit. Convinced the key to Mado’s reawakening is acknowledging the love they share, Nina becomes increasingly desperate, cutting side deals with Muriel and even getting violent.
Some of this suggests we may be heading into thriller territory, but Meneghetti avoids leaning too heavily into developments added to juice things up. The introduction of Muriel’s vengeful son may feel like a cheap way to work in some danger, but it ultimately helps sell the primary takeaway of Meneghetti’s moving, deceptively complex drama: Even if you have nothing else, if you have each other, you have all you need.