Director: Filippo Meneghetti
Screenplay: Malysone Bovorasmy, Filippo Meneghetti, Florence Vignon
Starring: Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier, Léa Druck
Duration: 99 mins
BBFC Certification: 12
If cinema has taught us anything, it’s that being old and being in love usually means that you are in for one tough ride. From startling revelations that can make you re-assess a decades old relationship (as in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years) to the ravages of disease tearing relationships apart, forcing you to explore the furtherest reaches of what love can mean (as seen in Michael Haneke’s absolutely devastating Amour), the combination of love and old age rarely guarantees a cinematic happy ever after.
Two of Us (or simply Deux in its original French title) was France’s foreign language submission to the 2021 Oscars. Released in cinemas and on digital this week, Two of Us certainly doesn’t stray from the usual cinematic template of putting its older characters through the wringer.
In terms of its story, Two of Us feels like a modern combination of two cinematic classics, where Leo McCarey’s take on the trials of old age in Make Way for Tomorrow is coupled with the exploration of a secret love that recalls Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. Nina and Madeleine have been having an affair for decades. Even though their love is still a secret, in the twilight of their years, they have finally found some degree of happiness. Ostensibly living opposite each other in separate apartments, they are actually sharing Madeleine’s flat as a couple, with Nina only popping back to her flat whenever Madeleine’s family visit. Yet for Nina, this isn’t enough. She is desperate for them both to sell up and move to Rome. The only problem is that Madeleine isn’t brave enough to reveal to her children the love affair she has kept secret for decades. Just when this stalemate seems to be tearing Nina and Madeline apart, disaster strikes, which means that Nina can no longer easily visit Madeline in her apartment. How far will Nina go in order to remain close to the woman she loves?
What could have turned out to be a saccharine, soapy romance is, under the guidance of director Filippo Meneghetti and co-writers Malysone Bovorasmy and Florence Vignon, a rather different beast. Two of Us, especially in its opening third, is a film that feels infused with a creeping sense of melancholy and quiet dread. This atmosphere soon segues into something more akin to a tense thriller, where Nina is forced to go to extremes in order to try and see her lover. The threat of Madeline’s children discovering the affair continues to keep the film on a knife edge and Nina’s continued confrontation with a woman employed by Anne (Medeleine’s daughter) feels suffused with menace.
Meneghetti manages, rather dextrously, to handle all these disparate moods (along with the sensitive handling of the film’s central relationship) with great success. In other hands, the film might have felt disjointed or confused, but as Meneghetti ensures that each tonal shift is always anchored and justified by Nina’s nightmarish situation and emotional plight, Two of Us emerges as a rather fresh and engaging take on the age old themes (no pun intended!) of love and commitment.
For a story that could have easily been suffocated by its confined locations, Meneghetti also manages to infuse Two of Us with a cinematic flair that broadens its emotional scope; witness, for example, the moment where the camera steadily pushes into Madeleine’s eyes as she listens with horror to a conversation she can’t be a part of. The film is also filled with powerful moments of cold cinematic economy that ensures that Two of Us owes a debt to Michael Haneke in more ways than one.
The occasional coldness of the film’s aesthetic is nowhere to be found when it comes to the two lead performances. Both Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier excel with warmth and affection in their respective roles. Sukowa brilliantly manages to balance Nina’s growing rage and sorrow behind a tightly wrought smile while Chevallier delivers a subtle but exceedingly convincing physical performance that uses stillness and movement to evoke the vast emotional chasms that are lurking underneath.
As we reach the conclusion of Nina and Madeleine’s journey, Two of Us unfortunately succumbs to a revelation so clearly signposted earlier that it robs a vital element of surprise from what would have been a gut punch moment. Yet the film only stumbles, never falls. While it ends on a grace note rather than a powerful emotional punch, Two of Us remains a sad, elegant film that finds a yearning romanticism in its final moments. It bucks the trend of cinematic depictions of old age, allowing chicks of light to break through the layers of grey that usually smother these stories in so much despondency and despair.
Two of Us is released in both cinemas and on digital on the 16th July.