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There are countless real-life cases in regional towns all over the world of mature male and female couples in communities unaware that what passes for friendship is actually a long-term committed gay relationship. A variation on that scenario forms the heart of Filippo Meneghetti’s terrific debut feature, Two of Us. Driven by a powerhouse, impassioned performance from Barbara Sukowa and one of contrastingly delicate brushstrokes by Comedie-Francaise veteran Martine Chevallier, the drama begins as a gentle love story and then takes a series of unpredictable turns as the clandestine life partners are separated by unfortunate circumstance.
Acquired following its Toronto premiere by Magnolia Pictures, this is a smart movie that starts from a relatively simple yet captivating premise and then steadily gains in complexity as it develops. It transitions from tender romance into penetrating sorrow before taking on notes of mordant humor and unexpected quasi-thriller elements. There’s even a hint of the suspense in the French provinces that was prime Claude Chabrol territory — though without the violent crime.
Beautifully filmed, with an assured grasp of framing as a storytelling tool, this is a classy item that should connect especially with older art house and LGBTQ audiences. Its dynamic depiction of the sexual and emotional vitality of women at an age too often neutered or shoved to the innocuous margins by toothless screen treatment will enhance its appeal as a boldly original female-centric drama.
Set in an unnamed town in the South of France and shot around Montpellier, the movie opens with a cryptic prologue featuring two young girls playing hide and seek in the tree-lined park that runs along a river bank. Water imagery tied to that scene figures intermittently, though it’s left to the viewer to draw the symbolic connection to the central plot.
Berlin transplant Nina (Sukowa) and widowed grandmother Madeleine (Chevallier) occupy the top floor of an old apartment building, their flats facing each other across a small landing. Nina spends every night with Mado, as she affectionately calls her lover of many decades, then discreetly slips back to her own home whenever visitors are expected. Mado is planning to sell up and relocate with Nina to Rome. It emerges that they met there in what appears to have been the early 1960s, judging by the Italian pop version of “I Will Follow Him” that they dance to while planning their idyllic escape to a new life together, their relationship finally out in the open.
But at a birthday dinner during which Mado plans to break the news to her divorced daughter Anne (Lea Drucker) and son Frederic (Jerome Varanfrain), she freezes up and is unable to get the words out, not for the first time. Her adult children remain convinced that their late father was the love of Madeleine’s life. When Nina inadvertently learns of Mado’s hesitation through a chance encounter with the latter’s real-estate broker (Herve Sogne), she loses her temper on the street, spitting out that she’s tired of excuses and that the only person still uptight about a pair of old lesbians (she uses more colorful terminology) is Mado.
In the startling scenes that follow, shown almost entirely from Nina’s devastated point of view, the open doors that make their two apartments into a single home suddenly are closed by an unforeseen event. Nina’s guilt over the anger that might have triggered the incident eats away at her, while at the same time, she deals with the heartsickness of sudden separation.
It’s at that point that the tremendous Sukowa’s emotionally charged performance kicks into high gear, as she must sneak around, monitoring the situation through the peephole in her door and using all her wiles to steal time with the woman she loves. That involves first engaging in a battle of wills with Mado’s dumpy sad-sack caregiver Muriel (Muriel Benazeraf), who’s not only threatened by Nina’s encroachment on her professional turf, but also distinctly uncomfortable about the growing evidence of a loving relationship between the neighbors. Nina’s ruthlessness in getting around the dim-bulb interloper is darkly hilarious.
The greater obstacle, however, is Anne. In Drucker’s layered performance, she seems certain she has always been close enough with her mother to share everything, though she is competitive with the prickly Frederic for Madeleine’s affection. At first, Anne is grateful for Nina’s concern and the kind neighbor’s offers to help out with Mado’s care. But when the truth emerges in a series of scenes both tense and wickedly amusing, Anne goes into furious denial, followed by the hostile Frederic. How the increasingly driven Nina gets around their roadblocks is reckless, slightly unhinged and also touchingly heroic.
Meneghetti and co-writer Malysone Bovorasmy have constructed a tight, briskly intelligent chamber drama, autumnal in setting and tone, and without a single superfluous scene, right through to its melancholy but gorgeous final sequence. Two of Us gives the mighty Sukowa, a distinguished veteran of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Margarethe von Trotta, the kind of juicy, multifaceted role too rarely afforded actresses in their later careers. And Chevallier is marvelous, spending much of the film communicating in silence yet conveying strong-willed determination as Mado seizes what’s left of her life and storms defiantly out of shadows of secrecy.
Production companies: Paprika Films, Tarantula, Artemis Productions
Distribution: Magnolia Pictures
Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier, Lea Drucker, Muriel Benazeraf, Jerome Varanfrain, Herve Sogne
Director: Filippo Meneghetti
Screenwriters: Filippo Meneghetti, Malysone Bovorasmy, with additional writing by Florence Vignon
Producers: Pierre-Emmanuel Fleurantin, Laurent Baujard
Director of photography: Aurelien Marra
Production designer: Laurie Colson
Costume designer: Magdalena Labuz
Music: Michele Menini
Editor: Ronan Tronchot
Casting: Brigitte Moidon, Valerie Pangrazzi
Sales: Doc & Film International
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
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