Two of Us movie review: Flawless performances, telling details populate France's official Oscars entry

Two of Us is not just a snapshot of last-gasp love but also a stirring indictment of the dehumanisation of old age.

Rahul Desai April 06, 2021 11:01:12 IST

4/5

Stories are narrative emblems of a world in motion. People and their predicaments already exist; humans become an accumulation of their experiences. The marker of a good film, then, lies in how the immediacy of the seen reveals the truth of the unseen. What is important is the relationship between the time shown and the history withheld – the film itself is simply the point chosen by the storyteller to board a long-distance train of life. In Two of Us, this point is both an end and a beginning. 

It is the end of a conventional against-all-odds love story. The story goes thus: Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), a closeted lesbian leading a heteronormative existence, meets Nina (Barbara Sukowa) during one of her travels. They fall in love. They are soulmates. But Madeleine is not conditioned to live for herself; she is married with young kids. There is no easy way out. So the two women choose to stay lovers; years turn into decades. They dream of a future where it is just them, away from the prying eyes of society, with no responsibilities and moral burdens left to tackle. Late into their 60s, Madeleine, a grandmother, becomes a widow. This is their chance. Nina moves to Madeleine. After waiting for eternity, the two are finally together. Most films end here. The viewers imagine a happily ever after. But this is where Two of Us actually begins.

The film opens with the two elderly women in Madeleine's bedroom. The passion between them feels new and young, as one might expect from a couple who have suppressed their desires for decades. It is only their third year of physical togetherness. The next morning, however, we start to realise why director and co-writer Filippo Meneghetti chooses to make this film, and not the previous one. As it turns out, a different challenge emerges: Nina and Mado are Madame Dorn and Mrs Girard, friendly neighbours in a building by day and clandestine partners by night. Their real life is still a facade, because Mado, the meeker of the two, is still unable to break free. She is worried about what Anne, her adult daughter, and Fred, her terse son, will say – she already feels guilty for cheating on her late husband. This state of limbo that Mado and Nina are in, though, is about to end: For three years, the two women have been saving to move to Rome, the city they first met in. Mado plans to sell her apartment, and most importantly, tell her family. But a twist in fate alters their plans. A “stroke” of luck acquires another meaning altogether.

Two of Us is not just a snapshot of last-gasp love but also a stirring indictment of the dehumanisation of old age.

The circularity of life places kids and the elderly in the same intellectual bracket; the adults responsible for their safety often fail to treat one differently from the other. The older we grow, the more difficult it gets for us to equate our ageing parents with “young” emotions like love, lust, passion, and sexuality. As a result, Madeleine’s caution is not unfounded. Like most others her age, she is not even considered capable of making rational decisions, let alone possess the agency to ride off into the sunset with another woman. When she suffers a stroke, the younger characters become the villains of her story the same way traditional parents do in old-school Bollywood romances. Control is disguised as care, and the very notion of a subservient old widow having nursed an alternate life for decades is preposterous to imagine. Nina and Mado are not mature adults to Anne so much as infants who do not know what is right for themselves. 

The filmmaking of Two of Us upholds the narrative. The little details go a long way in explaining the setting without spelling it out. Take, for instance, a pattern in the sound design that is supposed to invoke the long-muffled voice of the sidelined protagonists. In the more revelatory and ‘serious’ moments of the film, we do not hear the voices of the characters. Instead, the ambient sounds usually associated with the everyday life of the elderly overwhelm these moments – a cooking pan (when Mado collapses), a laundromat (when Nina discovers that Mado has cold feet), and highway traffic (when Anne reveals the situation to her brother). Then there is the recurring motif of tight close-ups of the women’s eyes – a visual allegory for how individuals in same-sex relationships hope to be seen the same way they see others. This intersection of sound and vision is further elevated by the film’s choice of crisis. Mado, who lacked the courage to voice her conviction, literally becomes voiceless after a stroke. Her paralysis, which doubles up as a metaphor for her long-paralysed mind, is primed to set her free. 

Two of Us movie review Flawless performances telling details populate Frances official Oscars entry

Still from Two of Us. YouTube

This is also where the acting comes in. The performances are near flawless across the board, but the two older actresses in particular convey the complex angst of a star-crossed tragedy. Barbara Sukowa, as Nina, walks the thin line between assertive partner and obsessive lover, especially once Mado’s family takes over. Martine Chevallier as Madeleine/Mado speaks volumes even when she cannot. Some of the finest scenes of the film feature Madeleine sitting passively, stuck in time and space, while those around her discuss her as though she does not exist. The desperation to communicate, to be heard and seen, injects her with a fire that she lacked as an able-bodied woman. These scenes also hint at the hidden subtext – that while coming of age might be a rite of passage for the young, it is simply the right to live for the old. Hers is a delicate and unsparing turn, one that allows Two of Us to transcend its form as a film. Because, by the end, the seen and the unseen start to converge: their world becomes a narrative emblem of a story in motion. 

Two of Us was France's official entry into the Best International Feature at Academy Awards 2021. It is currently streaming at the Virtual Viewing Room of the Dharamshala International Film Festival.

Rating: ****

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