Review: Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier are riveting in romantic drama ‘Two of Us’
You could watch a lot of classic love stories — the big, the small, sad, happy — and still not see something as uniquely heart-stopping and heartwarming as Italian filmmaker Filippo Meneghetti’s debut feature, “Two of Us.” A septuagenarian lesbian romance set in a small French town and steered by a pair of can’t-look-away performances from Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier, it’ll subvert all your notions of what late-in-life passion can look like on film, especially when threatened by lies, separation and time. In certain circumstances, this movie makes wrenchingly clear, being in love can even feel like being in a thriller.
After an enigmatic prologue of empty city spaces and a scene of hide-and-seek between two young girls in a tree-lined path, we meet — jump forward to? — Madeleine (Chevallier) and Nina (Sukowa) as secret lovers who have kept their relationship private for decades. When it comes to widowed grandmother Madeleine’s grown children, Anne (Léa Drucker) and Frédéric (Jérôme Varanfrain), the charade is that the nice Mrs. Dorn in the apartment across the hall is just that, a friendly neighbor. But away from the world, this devoted twosome open their respective doors, play their favorite music, and turn the top floor of their building into a single connected love nest.
Looming is a long-gestating plan to sell Madeleine’s apartment and move to Rome, but it requires coming clean with her family. When Madeleine hesitates and backpedals, however, it wounds the brash Nina, now fully tired of hiding. Soon afterward, their love is dealt a blow that a lot of movies would treat as a switch engineered to open the waterworks, but in Meneghetti’s confidently dramatized scenario, is a metaphoric hinge that sends the narrative into a fascinating new gear.
“Two of Us,” scripted by Meneghetti and Malysone Bavorasmy, is brilliantly structured like the handing of a baton from one woman’s perspective to the other’s — it gives kind-eyed but quietly churning Madeleine the tender set-up of showing us a cozy yet self-censored life, before stubborn Nina dominates the anguished back-half fight for love’s deliverance. Essentially, we meet them as a couple but also get to know them as individuals and eventually, when it counts, as an inseparable team. In depicting the fallout of a life lived in secret, what emerges — movingly, even suspensefully — is one of the more unpredictable portraits in recent memory of true love’s ability to overcome anything.
“Vital” is the word for the leads when it comes to cinematographer Aurélien Marra’s elegant images. In Chevallier’s sweet, worried gaze is a captivating swirl of private joy and family pressure; it’s disarming as the story develops how the viewer is drawn toward her eyes. Then there’s the German veteran Sukowa, who with her untamed blond locks, steely countenance and ever-present cigarette easily evokes the intelligent, edgy allure of her landmark turns for Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Margarethe von Trotta, before she gets to the task at hand: embodying a ferocious warrior for the cause of love. When the onus of saving their future together lands on Sukowa’s Nina, it’s as if a safeguarding goddess from a warship’s prow has come alive to do battle. Drucker, meanwhile, expertly embodies the blindsided adult daughter who becomes an unwitting, confused obstacle.
Meneghetti’s managing of the movie’s tones hardly feels like the work of a first-time feature director, with the shifts in pacing (Ronan Tronchot is the editor) that raise the stakes without sacrificing complexity of emotion, and Céline Bodson’s sound design: Everyday noises — a dryer, floorboards, doors opening and closing, a ticking clock — reflect and echo an inner world sensitive to the slightest disruption.
“Two of Us” is one of those artfully crafted movies that never plays as such, because its proud, beating heart is so front and center, and its faith in the power of love and desire so energizing.
'Two of Us'
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 5, Laemmle Virtual Cinema
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