In “Two of Us,” a Pair of Lesbian Seniors Navigate Life in Secrecy

Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa in "Two of Us."
Magnolia Pictures

The closet still makes for great dramatic motivation. After all, there are only so many reasons why lovers can’t live openly together.

Filippo Meneghetti’s “Two of Us” sets up a relationship between two elderly women who live next door to each other in the same apartment building. They finally plan to move to Rome to live more openly, but Madeleine (Martine Chevalier) can’t work up the courage to come out to her daughter Anne (Léa Drucker), who believes Madeleine’s late husband still remains the great love of her life. It doesn’t occur to the couple that the informality of their arrangement could be a danger to their ability to continue it. One day, she has a stroke. Her partner Nina (Martine Chevalier) has to fight with Anne and hired caregiver Muriel (Muriel Benazeraf) to remain the central person in her life.

“Two of Us” plays with a sinister claustrophobia. While not a horror film or thriller, it borrows images and ideas from them. In an opening scene which turns out to be a dream, a young girl hangs out in a park, becoming frightened by the sound of screeching birds. The apartment building is treated like a character, and not a friendly one. Repeatedly, the camera is positioned to simulate the view from an apartment peephole. The apartment hallways are dingy and barely lit. An air of menace pervades them. One almost expects the creepy twin girls from “The Shining” to make a cameo appearance.

However, this is the place where Nina and Madeleine have fallen in love. Once their connection is threatened, Nina fights desperately to cling to it, even though Madeleine’s ability to understand her immediately after the stroke is questionable. The film does not idealize her. Some of her behavior towards Muriel is appalling. But even her worst depths convey her passionate desire to stay with Madeleine. Without getting didactic, “Two of Us” shows the damage caused by homophobia. Nina and Madeleine have been together for 20 years without being open about it. The shocked response of Anne, who even tries drugging her mother into submission, shows why they were justified in fearing the outside world and treating the apartment building, small and dirty as it is, as their sanctuary.

Chevalier has a background in French theater; the opening credits tells us that she’s a member of the venerable Comédie Française. Sukowa is a veteran of New German Cinema, having starred in gay director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Lola” and “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and several films by Margarethe von Trotta. Her performance has a Teutonic coldness. “Two of Us” avoids the temptation of romanticism. Rather than hearts and flowers, it does its best to bring forward the story’s dark intensity. Meneghetti is an Italian who recently moved to France. While I don’t know his sexual orientation, the feeling of displacement in one’s own home lingering behind the film resonates in several ways.

Meneghetti tends to speak with images rather than words. We learn about Madeleine’s stroke by seeing an untended dish of food on a burning stove, in danger of causing a fire, in an extended shot. The final scene uses an Italian pop song from the early ‘60s to tell the couple’s story. But the thriller-adjacent touches never really pay off. Unless I missed something, the dream scenes showing two young girls who may be in danger don’t turn into a coherent subplot, beyond serving as a vague metaphor for Nina and Madeleine’s relationship.

All too often, LGBTQ identity is seen as a recent trend, even by heterosexuals who are basically sympathetic to us. “Two of Us” shows what happens when liberation is more theoretical than practical and easier to live out in your 20s than 70s. Unlike many films about lesbians by men, it avoids leering at them. It gazes hard into darkness without being defined by it.

TWO OF US | Directed by Filippo Meneghetti | Magnolia Pictures |  In French with English subtitles | Starts streaming through New Plaza Cinema Feb. 4

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