“Two of Us” – It’s exponential [MOVIE REVIEW]

Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa in TWO OF US, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“Two of Us” (“Deux”) is the feature film debut of director Filippo Meneghetti. Sharing screenplay credit with Malysone Bovorasmy, Meneghetti has given us a movie of incredible depth, warmth, and insight. It is a gift, carefully encased in layers, unwrapped lovingly from the colored paper on the outside to the fragile tissue around the reward.

Nina and Madeleine, affectionately known as Mado, are, to the outside world, neighbors and good friends. Women in their twilight years, they are inseparable and as close as their adjacent apartments. But closeness is a euphemism for what they are. They are lovers, in some ways clandestine and in others overt. Each night, Nina slips into Mado’s bed and they drift into the comfort they have experienced together for years.

Nina knows who she is and what she wants; what she has always wanted. Life is more complicated for Mado, a widow who was married for twenty years to a man who abused and tyrannized her. Mother of two adult children, her daughter Anne, to whom she is very close, marvels at why she stayed in such a marriage. Her son Frédéric, on the other hand, echoing the brutality of his father, accuses her of having wished her husband dead. But, as Anne points out, Mado is always quick to forgive Fred his disrespect.

Mado and Nina have plans. They would like to retire to Rome, the place they met and fell in love many years ago. Mado is willing to sell her apartment and go. Except… She has not found a way to approach her children and explain her choices. They are aware of her closeness to Nina and are grateful for it. They are not, however, cognizant of the true nature of this relationship. Mado has promised to open that closet door but at the last minute is unable to do so. They have a terrible fight and Nina storms off.

Rather than reveal any more, I would prefer to discuss the depth of this relationship as it evolves. The strength of this bond is tested during hard times, disagreements, and illness. Facing all three will be the challenge of both of their lives. Mado, in adversity, grows stronger even as she loses her ability to fight back and take control of her life. Nina, faced with enormous loss, finds ways to maintain her ties, strengthen her resolve, and protect Mado from the white noise that surrounds her. This is a love story of enormous impact facing seemingly insurmountable odds.

Martine Chevallier with Léa Drucker and Jérôme Varanfrain in TWO OF US, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Mado, who lived her life for everyone else, found happiness with Nina who was devoted to her. Nina, faced with the loss of Mado, had never understood the tentacles that held Mado to a life that was insincere. What Nina comes to see, almost too late, is that it was never a question of Mado not loving her completely, but of Mado’s love and devotion for her children and knowing that they might never be able to process her life as an individual with needs outside the family. The answer neither her daughter nor Nina understood was that Mado stayed in a bad marriage because of the children. Was it worth it? As you will see, yes and no.

That Mado feels safer closeted has as much to do with not unraveling her children’s preconceived notions as it does the reality of living in the judgmental provinces. Mado and Nina met in cosmopolitan Rome, a city that allowed them the anonymity to flower. But this is not where Mado lives her “real” life. Closets still exist in all sorts of ways.One of the things that Meneghetti does superbly throughout the film is build character without explanation. We don’t need any dialogue to lead us to the conclusion that Mado and Nina are more than “special” friends. He allows us to see it unfold like that present in its wrapper; a bittersweet chocolate that, as it melts, both puckers and satisfies.

The developments as they happen are absorbing and draw you closer into the two women and their love for one another. Meneghetti’s and Bovorasmy’s grasp of character is superb. It’s in the eyes and actions and circumstances that allows us to live with Mado and Nina. In classic character development terms (it is an expression that is often bandied about without proper explanation), Mado, Nina, and Anne make an almost imperceptible journey from the first frame to the last that shows how they have changed. All of them, us included, see the world differently at the end; Fred, perhaps, not so much.

The actors are revelatory. Barbara Sukow as Nina has been a star of German cinema for years starring in “Lola,” and “Hannah Arendt,” with many appearances in French and American films as well. The tension in her entire body, from her eyes to her stride, show us what the stakes are. Léa Drucker as Anne conveys the roller coaster of emotions from love to hate, innocence and cynicism, to a reluctant acceptance.

Notable also is Muriel Bénazéraf as Muriel, a caretaker employed by Anne. The blankness of her expression, the blandness of her movements belie a calculating evil that is ever present in the closeted world of Mado and Nina. Although in the film for a short time, her mere presence elevates the risks that Nina takes for love.

Finally, but really first and foremost, is Martine Chevallier as Mado. Her placid beauty, calm demeanor, and complex personality are conveyed primarily in her eyes. Much can be learned about her and those around her sitting in the chair of her daughter’s beauty salon as her hair is brushed. And it is in the eyes and the set of her mouth, first soft and then hardened, that we learn who she is and what she is made of. I was astounded by the seeming lack of film credits because Chevallier is an actress of great presence. Always in support and never in the lead, I was at first confused. But then I looked up her theater credits and the opposite was true – more often in the lead than in support. Note her billing in “Two of Us” and you will see that she is listed as Martine Chevallier of the Comédie Française. Her primary liaison has always been to the stage. The Comédie Française votes in its “Society” members, of which Chevallier was the 478th since its founding in 1680. It is easy to see why she is a revered stage actress.

Paced like a quiet Sunday afternoon stroll, Meneghetti gives us the time to absorb, feel, and experience an unexpected love story.

Opening February 5 on digital streaming and VOD. Two of Us – Watch at Home

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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