Two of Us is a film made with beautiful delicacy and care that shows how established love can be unexpectedly tested, be almost destroyed, but endure against all odds. Director Filippo Meneghetti is younger than the women at the center of his film, but he brings an impressive patience and respect to his feature directorial debut. Barbara Sukowa gives a performance of raw power triggered by ferocious fear.
Sukowa plays Nina, a woman who lives across the hall from the widowed Madeleine (played by Martine Chevallier). To most people they would appear to be old friends, but in reality they have been lovers for decades. Their two apartments occupy the entire floor, and they have duplicate keys to each other’s doors so they can share a life together discreetly without the outside world interfering. They’ve made plans to leave France and move to Rome, where they first me, to enjoy the freedom to be whomever they want to be. When Madeleine fails to tell her two adult children about her relationship and those plans, Nina is outraged, but that anger turns to desperate concern when Madeleine has a stroke and loses her ability speak. Nina must go to lengths she never thought possible in order to stay with the woman she loves and rescue the life they have together.
Meneghetti gives his actors room to fill the space but you can feel his guidance. Two of Us never slides towards melodrama because his actors understand the emotional stakes of what is happening. Sukowa should be more in the Best Actress conversation. Her Nina is impulsive–first in how she spurns Madeleine before her accident, but then in the way she uses that same fire to be fiercely protective. I haven’t stopped thinking about her performance since Two of Us debuted at Outfest last fall.
Two of Us is driven by two racing, beating hearts, and at times has the pacing of a psychological thriller. Imagine creating a private and and intimate world with the person you love and then having it all ripped away by people who don’t want to understand or care what they’re tearing apart. This is a real fear that still threatens gay people all over the world. Far too many can’t celebrate love without risking exposure, but as Nina and Madeleine show us–though together for decades–keeping their love hidden has prevented them from truly living.
Awards Daily: This feels like a horror movie to me in some ways. Watching the film really reignited a fear that I used to have when I was younger about prejudices against gay people. Obviously, things have gotten better for LGBTQ people but I was wondering if you were conscious of that history when you set out to make this movie?
Filippo Meneghetti: Definitely. Progress is not a straight line at all. In your country, and Europe as well, you can see that clearly. When we were writing the script there were gatherings so they could pass what is called ‘Marriage for Everybody.’ There were one hundred thousand people in Paris coming from the south and all over just to say no. That really mattered to us while writing because it was motivating. You realize that we are dealing with something that is very much there and it can go backwards easily. I’ve seen people going through hard times–people who are very close to me.
Barbara Sukowa: That was one of the reason why the movie plays out in a small, Catholic town in France instead of somewhere like Paris or Berlin or New York. I know that there are so many places in America where it is difficult to be gay. We’ve had people from the Middle East and Russia give us feedback. They’ve had to hide. The specific situation in the hospital, I had a memory when I had a boyfriend who was Jewish. It can’t compare, but his parents didn’t want him to be with a non-Jewish girl.
AD: Oh wow.
BS: He got very sick and he was in the hospital and he had cancer and all of a sudden I wasn’t allowed to see him. That was really hard and that has to be hard for homosexual partners who can’t always be with their partners.
AD: Hatred doesn’t go away.
FM: At all. Unfortunately, it does not.
AD: Barbara, what kind of toll did this take on your body? It all happens very quickly and when people experience trauma like this, they don’t realize that their body is going through it too.
BS: How did my physicality come across to you?
AD: It reminded me of when you know your body is exhausted but your mind is in another place. Your brain recognizes that you need to continue when your body might not agree.
BS: The fact that the lying that she had to do is reflected on her body. For example, Madeleine’s daughter comes and she meets her in front of the elevator or she goes to the hospital, when you can’t do what you want to do and you can’t say what you want to say, you keep that inside your body. You have that energy but you have to stay rigid. Sometimes it explodes. It’s not in the right proportion with this role. It’s mostly manifesting in her body but I felt more of her holding back and the lying was something I could feel.
AD: That restraint is something you have to keep in check.
AD: I always got the sense that Nina was always weighing her options. Maybe with Muriel, she has to figure out what exactly to say to get the right result.
BS: For a long time, sometimes gay men who might have a feminine demeanor or voice have to try and act masculine of what the world’s idea of masculinity is. When she goes to her to the dry cleaner, she constantly has to think that she can’t put her hand on Madeleine’s shoulder or things like that. That does something with your body.
AD: What was it like to write for and perform opposite someone who doesn’t speak back to you? How do you write that with respect and care?
FM: To me, that was a very interesting challenge and I really liked that about writing the characters. They are kind of doing the same thing. It’s very right what you said, Barbara, about being restrained. Nina is forced to do that. The two characters are written in symmetry to each other like a mirror. The original title is Deux or two. The symmetry was something we worked on while writing. Often you will see from the other side because it is all about being in the place of the other. In the first part of the film, Madeleine is the imposter. She plays the mother and the widow while she is madly in love with Nina. After the stroke, the thing is reversed and Nina will take on the role of an imposter because she doesn’t think she will be able to break it all loose. While Madeleine is speechless, she just has to go for it. Life is very contradictory and sickness can be revealing. Sometimes in a painful way and sometimes in a surprising way.
FM: Madeleine is trying to escape that prison. What interested in directing it was that she had very little tools to do it. She has her eyes and the micro details like when she pushes the cup off and it falls. Nuancing this was very interesting to me.
BS: I just realized something. I didn’t realize it so much that she wasn’t talking while I was acting with her. But I did realize that maybe that’s because they had to communicate without words whenever they were in public. I was just used to getting an eye from her.
AD: Oh yeah.
BS: I could get something from her when I couldn’t say anything from her. Whether we are around the family or in the market. I never thought that there was any kind of challenge with communicating with her in scenes.
FM: When you’ve been that deeply in love for so long, do you really need to speak?
AD: I can shoot my husband a look from across the room and he will know exactly what I am thinking.
FM: Yes, exactly. We all have these experiences sometimes in life.
AD: Nina acts a certain way in front of Madeleine’s children. That dynamic changes when she can’t speak and Nina is trying to get things and learn things from Anne. We see Madeleine’s eyes darting back and forth.
AD: Madeleine has had a fear of her children knowing who Nina really was and here Nina gets to sort of bond with Anne but the circumstances are so warped from the original intentions. Barbara, do you think Nina ever thought about having a family? Is that something in your building of the character that you thought of?
BS: We know very little about Nina. We don’t even know if she was married before. I know quite a few many women who were married but they are gay. Probably not, but it might have been possible. I think, at that time, when she was young it would’ve been 25 or 30 years ago that she would’ve been had children. I don’t think it would’ve occurred to her that having a family with gay parents was possible. It wasn’t part of her plan. I don’t know if that was even on her radar considering when she was born.
AD: Some people born at that time never had that notion.
BS: No, I don’t think so.
**Do not read beyond this point to avoid spoilers**
AD: The film leaves us on a very pivotal moment. There are tears in Nina’s eyes and it reminded me of the last spoken confrontation where Nina tells Madeleine that she is pathetic. We don’t know what is going to happen between them and I love how powerful it ends.
BS: It was a special moment for me. I didn’t plan anything. I was dancing with her and I looked at her, and I don’t know if she will stay speechless. Will she recover and have enough time for our dream to come true? It’s all about happiness to have her in my arms and be with her. On the other hand, there is this impossible sadness like they are going to be in this apartment and Madeleine will stay the way she is. I just let the scene happen. They have this imaginary life in their head and you see these dreams pulverized in front of you. It’s a very fragile moment and I’m very touched that you got that.
Two of Us will be available to stream on February 5th.