From the outside, Two of Us appears to be a heartwarming, perhaps sad tale that promises a stirring romance between two elderly women. While some of this might be true, France’s Oscar submission for this year carries a dark undertone, resulting in a uniquely complex lesbian film, a kind that we haven’t quite seen before.
Walking from one apartment across the hall to another, Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) have secretly carried on a relationship for decades. The two women now, in their old age, are planning on selling their apartments and moving to Rome, the city where they first met. But first, Madeleine, ‘Moda,’ must tell her two children, who are still upset over their father’s death. After an accident, Moda is put under the care of her children who still do not know that Nina is more than just their mother’s neighbor.
Immediately, the film’s opening scene sets a dark tone while flashing back to Nina and Moda when they are young girls. This darkness resides beneath the rest of the film with ominous music and slow zooms. Shadowy cinematography, which is stunning, also adds to this darker atmosphere. In the first scene where we see present day Nina and Moda, they embrace each other in their bathroom, covered in shadow. They kiss and move further into the shadow instead of moving out to the rest of their room. This introduction to them perfectly sets up how they have lived their entire lives together — in the dark. These aesthetics aid the film’s desperate story of a woman trying to save the one she loves. Since no one else knows about their relationship, Nina is denied contact with Moda after her accident. She watches from her apartment through the peephole of her door, hoping to work her way back into Moda’s apartment where she used to freely come and go.
Setting up the film with these obstacles allows for an exploration of perceptions. Moda is afraid to tell her family the truth about her and Nina, especially after the death of her husband. Lying to your family for decades about who you are can cause permanent trauma that is difficult to overcome. Nina doesn’t struggle with this, as her family is never mentioned. But growing up in a time when homosexuality was less than acceptable, both women deal with overcoming the damage that has caused them. And Moda’s children have only ever seen their mother as loving their father, with her daughter at one point saying, “He was her one true love,” while speaking with Nina.
This leads to another layer of the film that is more familiar to LGBT storylines — the pain of hidden love. Because she is cut off from Moda and her condition, Nina has to plan how she is going to get back into contact with her. Her desperation causes her to take more extreme measures. She also must undergo the torment of being sidelined since nobody knows what she means to Moda. The agony Nina feels is clear and palpable. However, Two of Us never falls into melodrama or misery porn. It structures the film almost like a spy thriller, allowing the audience to root for Nina but not pity her. It is a difficult situation to watch unfold, but the film operates as something that is realistic and complex.
Even though it has a tough storyline, the two leads make the film incredibly fulfilling to watch. Their chemistry sells their decades-long love affair instantly, allowing the audience to fall in love with their relationship, which is important because they are fighting for it throughout the entire film. Seeing two older women in love who are still attracted to each other and are planning the rest of their lives is refreshing to see. The film manages to create surprise at every turn; it never treats them like they are old women who have no agency or aspirations,.
Filippo Meneghetti’s moving film offers something new. Within its dark, suspenseful atmosphere, Two of Us spins its romantic expectations into something more complex and moving than expected. Perceptions shape us, influence us, and change how we act with different people. Breaking free from those ideas that people have of us can be terrifying, especially if you’ve been hiding for as long as Nina and Moda. Love shouldn’t be hidden in the dark; it should be allowed to come out of the shadows and flourish, no matter what age you are.