American cinema may finally have entered an era when there are more LGBTQ stories on our screens, but it must be acknowledged that, as much of a hard-won blessing this may be, an entire generation (or two) of our community’s older members are still being left out of the picture.
That’s true, of course, for older people across the board. American movies, focused eternally on profit, aim for a younger, more lucrative demographic, and stories about the over-50 crowd usually don’t make the cut. As the industry shifts to a post-pandemic future that includes more at-home viewing options for feature film releases, that imbalance may begin to change – but in the meantime, thankfully, we can still look to Europe for movies about our queer elders.
The latest such offering is France’s official entry for the Oscar category formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film, “Two of Us” (titled “Deux” in its native country), stars two veterans of Euro-cinema as a long-term lesbian couple who unexpectedly find themselves dealing with the consequences of living in the closet.
Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) are two retired women who have been secret lovers for decades. Living in separate apartments on the same floor of the same building, they have maintained the illusion of being merely neighbors for the sake of Madeleine’s adult children, who have no idea their mother is gay; now they have plans to sell their homes and move together to Rome, as they have always wanted to do. But before that can happen, Madeleine suffers a massive stroke that puts her in the hospital and renders her unable to communicate – forcing Nina to take increasingly extreme measures in order to be by the side of the woman she loves.
Decades of experience with narratives like the one presented here is likely to lead audiences to expect a grim-but-important story about the need to fight against cultural homophobia and discrimination; but while those things may factor into the screenplay penned by director Filippo Meneghetti and co-writer Malysone Bovorasmy for “Two of Us,” what it delivers has arguably more to do with the habit of being repressed than it does with repression itself. In any case, it diverts us from our expectations quickly; after setting itself up as a late-in-life “coming out” story, it veers without warning into a milieu that more closely resembles a Hitchcockian potboiler than a heartfelt sociopolitical drama. That’s no accident, according to Meneghetti. The director has said his intention was “to shoot this love story as if it were a thriller,” and it’s a tactic that works across multiple layers.
The lynchpin on which this approach hangs is Madeleine’s closeted status with her children. Once her awareness is dimmed and her ability to speak is removed, perhaps forever, it’s too late for her to come out; moreover, it’s impossible for her to convey her desire to have her beloved by her side, or even that she is anything more than an acquaintance. As a consequence, Nina is placed in an impossible position, but one she is determined to surmount. Initially, she finds excuses – a visit to check in on her “neighbor” at the hospital, an offer to lend a hand with the various burdens of care – but when these begin to wear thin, her efforts escalate. Using tactics of stealth, manipulation, and bold-faced dishonesty, she follows the imperative of her heart into progressively dangerous, even illegal action. As she does, Meneghetti depicts her downward spiral with all the trickery of a slasher film, complete with menacing characters, shadowy hallways, and jump scares; we’re never sure what is waiting for her in the darkness or just beyond the door. By the time she reaches her desperate endgame, however, he has taken us beyond the tropes of his faux-horror conceit and brought us squarely into the climax of a caper film.
In terms of storytelling, all this genre-jumping technique effectively pulls the viewer out of the distanced, intellectual space into which we are initially lulled and thrusts us instead into a more visceral mindset. More importantly, perhaps, it has the effect of forcing us to identify in a more personal way with its protagonists, causing us to experience their harrowing circumstance more directly than we might from the safe distance allowed by an exploration of social issues.
At the same time, the film’s primary setting lends itself to a craftily subliminal observation about public and private identity. The two women’s nearly identical apartments, separated by a stair landing, have open doors when we first see them, creating a shared space that they inhabit together; but later, when other people are inevitably brought into the mix by Madeleine’s condition, the opening and closing of these same doors becomes an intricate dynamic in Nina’s efforts to reach her lover. Meneghetti has also said the idea for his movie actually came from his encounter with a real-life living arrangement like the one shared by Nina and Madeleine. As a result of this architectural inspiration, the film’s carefully arranged physical geography invites us to contemplate the way our behavior is governed by privacy. To put it more simply: it confronts us with the notion that who we are, and what we do, often depends on whether or not anyone can see us.
A final revelation from the filmmaker touches on what elevates “Two of Us” beyond the sum of its eclectic set of parts. In discussing his two leading characters, he has said, “I didn’t want us to feel sorry for them.” It’s this desire to avoid sentiment that makes us engage so fully with the story. Each of the lovers makes questionable choices, and neither the script nor the performances (both Sukowa and Chevallier are exquisitely real) make any effort to mitigate their culpability in their own unfortunate crisis. At the same time, Madeleine’s daughter (Léa Drucker, also giving a delicate, layered performance) serves as the film’s antagonist, but she is no raging homophobe. When she begins to suspect that something is not as it seems with her mother’s overly concerned neighbor, her hostile response is not so much over any issue of sexuality as it is out of anger about being lied to.
That last point begs the question of why Nina never even considers trying to tell the truth about her relationship with Madeleine to her daughter. The answer to that is something the movie never really gives us, but surely challenges us to contemplate.
“Two of Us,” like the season’s other LGBTQ drama about an older couple facing a health crisis, “Supernova,” faces the obstacle of being perceived as a “downer” in a time when most audiences are likely to prefer lighter fare. But, also like “Supernova,” it is surprisingly upbeat. It’s also engaging, suspenseful, powerful, and – perhaps most unexpected of all – exciting in an edge-of-your-seat kind of way. That, along with its excellent performances and a tour-de-force turn from its filmmaker, should be more than enough to make it a must-see for anyone who likes their LGBTQ movies to be outstanding cinema, too.