With so many films about secret love, and many more about the complications of aging, it is remarkable when filmmakers find new stories to tell. Filippo Meneghetti gives us the romantic and heart-wrenching account of two retirees navigating their secret relationship in Two of Us (Deux).
To the outside world, Madeleine (Martine Gerard) and Nina (Barbara Sukowa) are neighbors on the top floor of their apartment building. But away from strangers, other tenants, and Madeleine’s family, they have been in a loving and committed relationship for years. Meneghetti introduces his two women on a quiet morning, enjoying the early hours and anticipating the important day ahead. Madeleine (“Mado” as Nina calls her), is meeting with a realtor to sell her apartment so that the two can move to Rome and live openly as a couple. And later, Mado will finally tell her son and daughter the truth.
Meneghetti is a gifted director, confidently crafting his first narrative feature with the skill of a veteran. He uses his time wisely, never letting a scene extend longer than necessary but giving us everything we need to share each emotion alongside Mado and Nina. Madeleine steels herself to come out to her children, only to rethink the decision and change her mind. We feel the anticipation, the fear, and the resignation as each feeling crosses Martine Gerard’s face. It is the kind of subtle performance that captivates and engages. When Mado has to tell Nina the conversation didn’t take place, we feel Nina’s frustration and anger, but we side with Madeleine too, precisely because Gerard draws our empathy.
The focus shifts soon after when Madeleine suffers a debilitating stroke and loses the ability to walk, talk, or care for herself. Her daughter Anne (Léa Drucker) arranges live-in care, and because Madeleine never had that important conversation with Anne or her son Frederic (Jérôme Varanfrain), Nina’s place in Mado’s life is immediately relegated to the neighbor they’ve always believed her to be. Her loss is our loss and we experience her devastation as she watches through the peep hole and pesters the nurse, desperate to steal any small moment of time with the woman she loves.
The shift in point of view from Madeleine to Nina is deft and seamless. It is another example of Meneghetti’s command of story and craft. We immediately move from Mado’s perspective to Nina’s and Barbara Sukowa pulls us in easily, welcoming us into her experience. After meeting her in Mado’s warm, vibrant apartment, Nina is forced to return to the nearly empty one she’s been keeping for appearances. It is a reality that is conveyed by smart production design and cinematography, rather than a fact that needs to be explained to the audience. It is in those details that Meneghetti’s talent as a director truly shines. He doesn’t fear silence or the unspoken. Rather, he embraces it. The beauty of Two of Us is in its quiet moments, just as much as it is in those where characters express their desires or needs.
To its core, this film is honest, navigating complicated relationships with just the right degree of grace. It can be messy too, in that way that resentments and grudges manifest themselves untidily and inconveniently. One minor subplot feels out of place in the narrative, but is not so egregious as to derail the main story because it never strays from the grander point: these are two women who need each other desperately. Their deep, powerful longing is far more meaningful and beautiful than mere desire.
Two of Us is lovely and heartfelt. There are times we are sad for the characters, hopeful for them, disappointed in them, and happy. We want Anne and Frederic to accept who their mother is and welcome Nina into their family. We want Mado and Nina to move away to Rome and live out their lives in peace and happiness. This far into the 21st century, that should be an easy reality for anyone who wishes it. The fact that it isn’t makes Two of Us beautiful, heartbreaking, and necessary.