When we’re young, it’s natural — even necessary — to imagine that we’ll eventually grow into ourselves. Someday. Today we’re new and unsure, but tomorrow we’ll be old and inhabit our skin with the confidence of someone who’s been sewn inside of it for a lifetime. We’ll have the wisdom to understand how we got there, the permission to do whatever our bodies will still let us, and the imperative not to lie about who we are. And yet, those pieces don’t just fall into place on their own; they aren’t automatically conferred upon people of a certain age like wrinkles or social security benefits or the unsolicited subscription to AARP Magazine that every American finds shoved into their mailbox one day like an appointment reminder from the Grim Reaper. On the contrary, such dividends are often earned through difficult choices — if not choices about who you are, then choices about how to be them.
A tender and unexpectedly suspenseful lesbian romance that ages the furtiveness of so many queer love stories until it’s subsumed into the frailty of “Amour,” Filippo Meneghetti’s “Two of Us” is at heart a film about how those choices can get harder over time, petrify around people as the years wear on, and — Meneghetti quite literally suggests — even paralyze them into running out the clock. It is often a good one, worthy of being selected as France’s official Academy Awards submission from a field that was light on major contenders, and especially so before its most pivotal character loses her ability to make any choices at all.
Nina (one-time Fassbinder ingénue Barbara Sukowa) and Mado (Martine Chevallier channeling Emmanuelle Riva) are 70-something women who’ve lived in opposite flats on the same floor of an old French apartment building for more than 20 years, and they are very much in love with each other. This is not a matter of convenience so much as its opposite: They’ve have been in a committed relationship for several decades — one that may have started before the death of Mado’s husband all those decades ago, and is definitely still cooking with gas — but even in their old age they continue to cos-play as close friends because Mado can’t bring herself to tell her grown children the truth.
But Nina and Mado are both retired now, and the former isn’t willing to spend their golden years under a veil of shame; centuries of gay people didn’t love in secret so that a modern woman like Nina wouldn’t be able to tell her grandson who she really is (Meneghetti’s script assigns secrecy a different weight than it carries in most queer romances, as Nina emphatically reminds Mado that no one else cares if they’re together). After so many years of living a lie, Nina has finally convinced Mado to come clean so that the two of them can move in together… or so she thinks. Mado can’t bring herself to pull the trigger, and the fight that Nina starts with her as a result isn’t even close to being resolved when Mado suffers a massive stroke a few hours later, which opens the door to the grim possibility that it never will be. As Mado blankly convalesces at home under the watchful eye of her concerned daughter Anne (Léa Drucker) and the obstinate nurse she hires to help out (a menacingly oafish Muriel Bénazéraf), Nina will have to navigate the urgent need to care for the love of her life without betraying the still-buried secret that’s denying her the freedom to do just that.
Heightened and quotidian in unnervingly equal measure, that dilemma complicates the melodrama of Meneghetti’s ultra-assured debut with the strangled energy of a domestic horror movie, as Nina starts to seem like a home invader in the same apartment that she and Mado have shared together for so many years. Mado isn’t even back from the hospital before Nina begins sneaking in to eavesdrop on any conversations her partner’s children might be having about her condition, and “Two of Us” is never more acutely engaged with the unbearable pain of loving someone in secret than when its septuagenarian heroine is forced to “Parasite” her way back into her own relationship. Meneghetti perverts the severity of his Haneke-adjacent style with flourishes that would feel more at home in a Polanski film as Nina skulks around shadowy corners and watches the foyer through the peephole in her front door, each moment of paranoia adding to the irony of this poor woman being stuck in a tragic parody of the subterfuge that she always hated so much.
Nina was always the more forthright member of the relationship, and in the aftermath of Mado’s stroke Sukowa embodies her with the frustration of an oxygen-starved fire. Aside from a dream sequence prologue that doesn’t carry its weight, the film’s opening scenes allow Sukowa and Chevalier to create such a clear feeling of history and intimacy between their characters that it’s impossible not to feel Nina’s pain at being cut off from the love of her life, not to cringe at how callously Nina’s offers to help are rebuffed by Anne and the nurse (you’ll hate that nurse so much for having the gall to do her job), and not to hold your breath as she sneaks overly hopeful smiles at the vacant Mado in her wheelchair.
It’s a shame that Meneghetti’s script (co-written with Malysone Bovorasmy) almost seems to be afraid of its own potency, as the movie stagnates over the course of a second act that relies on thin suspense and empty introspection when it can no longer bear to sit with the agony of Nina’s predicament. Once punctured, “Two of Us” is never able to pump the air back into its tires, and a handful of climatic moments that should be heart-stoppingly poignant instead come off flat, or at least much flatter than you feel they should.
Meneghetti finds more power in his film’s less pointed moments, especially in the ones that allow Nina’s red-hot fury to forge a degree of understanding she may not have had before. Over time, and in her own unspoken way, she comes to appreciate how difficult it would have been for Mado to tell her kids why their parents’ marriage was built on a shaky foundation, or to find the “right moment” to confess that losing their beloved late father was also what set her free. New generations were born, the roots of Mado’s family tree gnarled around whatever resentments were already messed into the soil, and the risks of digging up such deep earth may have started to outweigh the potential rewards for Mado as she got older (we see enough peevishness from her adult son Frédéric to sympathize with that calculus). Despite its skittish inference that Mado’s stroke is a manifestation of her own self-denial, “Two of Us” is ultimately less interested in judging her for that choice than it is in exploring how some of life’s most significant choices can only be made together.
Magnolia Pictures will release “Two of Us” in virtual cinemas on Friday, February 5.