Director Filippo Meneghetti’s poignant romantic drama, “Two of Us,” available on demand and at the Landmark Ritz Five on February 5, begins with retirees Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) living together in cozy domesticity. But these initial scenes are deceptive. The women, who are lovers, are actually neighbors, sharing opposite apartments on the same floor of their building. They are together, but apart, in part because Madeleine is afraid of disclosing their secret relationship to her adult children, Anne (Léa Drucker) and Frédéric (Jérôme Varanfrain).
However, it is lovely to see Nina and Mado (her nickname) kissing and dancing together. And it is encouraging that the women are planning to sell their apartments and move to Italy to “be who we want.” The couple met in Rome; Nina, who is German, was a tour guide on a trip Mado once took.
Unfortunately, their plans to relocate are complicated by Mado’s inability to come out to her children. She lies to Nina about this, and when Nina learns the truth, it prompts a fight. Alas, before Nina can apologize, Mado suffers a debilitating stroke. The scene of Nina discovering her lover is brilliantly shot; Meneghetti focuses on a frying pan cooking on the stove, revealing something is wrong by the way the food burns.
It is at this point in “Two of Us” that the narrative shifts away from Mado and focuses on Nina, who is guilt-ridden and desperate for news of her lover. She unexpectedly gets some devastating information — that Mado may not speak again — when she hides in Mado’s apartment as Anne and Frédéric arrive to collect their mother’s things.
But Nina is determined to reconnect with her lover, and viewers will be rooting for her to do so. Nina becomes very attentive to the comings and goings across the hall, spying through her peephole to time her visits to her advantage. She also sizes up the live-in caregiver, Muriel (Muriel Bénazéraf) who resists her assistance and proves to be an obstacle for Nina’s goals. Nina is so impatient to see Mado that she creeps into the apartment in the middle of the night (she has a key, of course) to ask forgiveness from her lover.
“Two of Us” thankfully never suggests that Nina’s single-mindedness is anything other than her way of expressing her love for Mado. Nina’s behavior often reflects how a stalker may behave — she sneaks into Mado’s bed on more than one occasion — but Meneghetti resists making her into a villain. Instead, Nina’s calculated actions show the extremes she will go to in order to “get” Mado back and help her condition improve. When she plays a song that the women often dance to, Mado walks on her own, illustrating the connection between the lovers.
The opportunities for Nina to interact with Mado may be contrived, but they build the film’s dramatic tension. When and how will Nina and Mado’s relationship be discovered? And will there be fallout if this happens? Meneghetti teases out the answers. A fantastic scene has Anne and Nina talking, but the camera fixes on Mado’s eyes as she listens, shifting her gaze from one woman to the other expressing both love and fear at that same time. As Anne becomes more wary of her mother’s neighbor, the film’s tone shifts. Soon, Nina is prevented from spending any time with Mado.
“Two of Us” is melancholy, but it is never downbeat. Sukowa gives a deeply moving performance as a woman who has put all her hope and trust (and money) into being with the woman she loves only to be unexpectedly denied her happily ever after. Nina’s behavior may be rash at times — damaging a car Muriel borrowed to get the caregiver in trouble with Anne; being confrontational with Mado’s children; and even helping Mado escape from a facility — but she is sympathetic throughout. Sukowa makes Nina’s nervy and vulnerable dispositions palpable as her fortunes rise and fall. Watching her scheme to be with her lover are among the film’s many pleasures.
In support, Chevallier is heartbreaking, conveying her emotions through just her expressions and body language. As Anne, Léa Drucker nicely modulates her responses to Mado and Nina as she discovers more about each woman.
Meneghetti, making his feature debut here, shoots many scenes in close-up, and this intimacy makes the film incredibly affecting. He is a wonderfully precise director, employing reflective shots through the peepholes or windows, and using silence to allow viewers to absorb pivotal scenes, or the squawking of birds to heighten emotions.
The filmmaker also uses space to provide telling details, such as the contrast between Mado’s warm, inviting apartment and Nina’s emptier, more sterile space, which suggests the economic situations of each woman. Nina has obviously sacrificed and sold everything to realize her dream of moving to Rome with Mado. The sparse environment also illustrates how emotionally bereft she is.
“Two of Us” is an involving story of lesbian love, emphasizing the power of being together and the pain of being apart.