Thursday, April 25, 2024

‘Two Of Us’ is a lesbian movie like no other

Featuring stunning performances from its two leads, this is a must-see film.

Two older women, Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), are planning their retirement. They have been lovers for years but are not out to the world. Everybody, including Madeleine’s family from her previous heterosexual marriage, thinks they are neighbors who share the top floor of an old building where they live in separate apartments across the hall from each other.

Only we see their passion for each other and their delight in simple pleasures, which include shopping, dancing, making love, and dreaming about what their retirement will offer them. But all does not go smoothly after they disagree on how Madeleine should broach the subject with her kids. And then the crack in their charmed existence turns into a chasm. Will Nina and Madeleine be reconciled?

Martine Chevallier as Madeleine (L), Barbara Sukowa as Nina

Two Of Us hit home for me. Many queer people of a certain age have willed ourselves into existence. Even in the face of growing acceptance there is a residue of reticence to adapt to the mainstream. Some queer people, especially the artistic or iconoclastic, live unfettered lives in which adulting takes a back seat to a beautiful life led on the margins of existence. But unless you come from great privilege, it’s a dangerous way to live. Especially if you have a partner or children and have not accounted for them in the event of something unforeseen.

There seems to be a clutch of movies coming out of Europe dealing with queer themes — written, directed and acted by non-queer talent. Think Supernova, Ammonite, and now Two of Us. I don’t have a problem with that and I don’t see these thematic explorations of human desire as cultural appropriation or identity theft…as long as they’re done well. Whereas queer people make queer films in order to represent themselves, straight people make films about queer people to explore an idea. They are not the same thing and they can’t be judged equally. What’s new about this? Name one movie depicting older, sexual lesbians confronted with their mortality.

Director/screenwriter Filippo Meneghetti is a former anthropologist-turned-filmmaker and it shows. Two Of Us is a self-assured and sophisticated study of human nature that somehow manages to be both inside the relationship and objectively outside it. Meneghetti makes it clear in his screenplay (co-written with Malysone Bovorasmy) that Madeleine and Nina’s relationship is private, sexy and precious. It is a hidden world in a time when being hidden is anachronistic. The women keep their love secret partly to protect it from the rather uncouth and uncaring people around them.

Barbara Sukowa as Nina is incandescent

This is a French film, original title, Deux. And thus, it has subtitles — and subtleties that I love. You may have never seen these actors before if your cinematic tastes run more mainstream. But what pleasures await! Barbara Sukowa (Hannah Arendt, Europa) delivers an earthy, incandescent, magnetic performance; her passionate pursuit of the woman she loves is enthralling. Martine Chevallier (Farewell My Queen, Jefferson in Paris) is simply heartbreaking as the delicate, evasive Nina. Two Of Us is France’s official submission for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards.

Writer-director Meneghetti offered his perspective on this beautiful movie:

The film is centered on a couple of women in their seventies who are secretly in love. How did you get the idea to tell this story?

The inspiration for the complexity of my protagonists’ life choices and their inability to completely own them, with regard to their families, came from various people I have known, whose trajectories made a deep impression on me. For so long, I wanted to write a film about them, but I wasn’t sure of the best angle to approach it. Then, one day, when I was about to ring a friend’s doorbell, I heard voices coming from the top floor. I went upstairs to take a look. The front doors of the two apartments up there were open, and the voices were those of two women talking to each other from their respective apartments. I lingered for a few minutes, unseen and in silence. It really was very intriguing.

Barbara Sukowa committed to the part at an early stage
Martine Chevallier: Comfortable with age while exuding strength

Later, my friend told me that the two women were widows in their seventies, who warded off loneliness by constantly keeping their doors open and making the landing between them part of an enlarged apartment that covered the whole top floor. That triggered something in my head, and I could picture my story. My protagonists would live together in that way, hiding their romantic involvement by appearing to the world to be mere neighbors. Lots of images sprang to mind as the arrangement, which was metaphorical while also simple and routine, took shape in my brain. The project was born. The surprising thing is that much later, when I was working on the script with my co- writer, I heard about a couple who lived almost exactly like Nina and Madeleine to conceal their relationship from their families. Life imitating art, I suppose.

Léa Drucker plays Anne, Nina’s daughter

So the architectural aspect was at the core of the film?

Yes, before we even started writing. The two interconnecting apartments would be the protagonists’ living space and, at the same time, a symbolic place that reflects and expresses their dealings with the outside world. In Madeleine’s apartment, every detail, every object tells the story of her family. Its coziness constantly reminds us of the burden weighing on her shoulders — the bonds around her, the chains holding her. Nina’s apartment is more mysterious. We only see it later in the movie, just as the character gradually reveals herself. As for the landing, it is the pivotal space between the two apartments. The two front doors, which are always open initially, start to shut, turning this porous space into a kind of border. Those images — open doors, closed doors — seemed a simple and effective metaphor for Nina’s exclusion by Madeleine’s family.

How did you develop the characters with your actresses?

Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier committed to the project at a very early stage, which allowed us to write the characters for them. I wanted Nina and Madeleine to be played by actresses who are comfortable with their age while exuding strength. I didn’t want audiences to perceive them as victims, but as heroines fighting for their love. The film tells the story of a struggle, the story of a passion that is as obstinate as it is affectionate. But that struggle is also a way to explore issues that fascinate me. How does the gaze of others influence our acts? What inner conflict roils us when confronted with that kind of censorship? The obstacles that stand in their path sometimes lead Nina and Madeleine to extreme behavior. I didn’t want us to feel sorry for them.

Magnolia Pictures will release Two Of Us in theaters and on demand February 5, 2021. Watch the trailer here.

Merryn Johns

Merryn Johns is the Editor-in-Chief of Queer Forty. She is an award-winning journalist, as well as a broadcaster and public speaker. Originally from Sydney, Australia where she began her career in journalism in the 1990s, she is based in New York City where she became the editor-in-chief of Curve Magazine and wrote for a variety of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Slate, and more. Follow on Twitter at @Merryn1

Merryn Johns has 140 posts and counting. See all posts by Merryn Johns

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