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▶︎ Two of Us is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player and other platforms from 16 July.

In Filippo Meneghetti’s compelling first feature, bad timing threatens to wipe out a 20-year relationship.

Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) and Nina (Barbara Sukowa) are pensioners who live across the hall from each other; they are also secretly lovers. Initially this set-up seems to aid their convivial relationship, as when an estate agent visits and Nina flits across the hall to her own apartment, pretending to be just a neighbour, the two women relishing the game. But Madeleine is burdened by keeping the secret from her two adult children, Anne and Frédéric, and after she fails to reveal her relationship to them she has a devastating stroke which leaves her confused and unable to speak.

Nina, known to others only as the neighbour, is forced to become an interloper in her own life: sneaking into the apartment at night to see Madeleine and manipulating the suspicious caregiver for access. She becomes increasingly desperate as she sees her decades-long relationship disappear, and is convinced that only she can bring Madeleine back from her catatonia.

Barbara Sukowa as Nina in Two of Us

Two of Us is not unlike many stories of a devoted queer love threatened by the outside world, but here the threat isn’t intolerance – Nina outs Madeleine to their estate agent, whose nonplussed reaction proves her point that “…no one cares” about two old lesbians – but hesitation. Meneghetti reveals the details of their relationship slowly, so that as we watch it seemingly slip away we learn how significant it really was. And it is heartbreaking that Nina’s presence in Madeleine’s life can fit into a duffel bag which she dejectedly carries to her own sparse apartment (so unused that she has to turn the fridge back on).

Surprisingly, much of the film feels like a thriller, and Meneghetti revels in the genre. In another context, the empathetic Nina – who breaks into apartments, bribes the caregiver, and damages property – would be branded an unhinged stalker. But the escalating dread doesn’t pay off, and in retrospect the thrilling sequences feel more like bluffs.

While Meneghetti treats Nina and Madeleine’s passionate devotion with the gentleness you would expect from a story about elderly lesbians, Barbara Sukowa’s performance is admirably unamiable: she’s often angry, anxious, and calculating. She’s ultimately unwilling to remain the polite and unobtrusive neighbour and will fight tooth-and-nail to get back to being the caring old lesbian couple that no one cares about.

Sight and Sound November 2021

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