Two of Us opens with an ominous premonition, a scene that foreshadows the movie’s plot. On a tree-lined lane, two girls are playing hide and seek. Blackbirds flock and caw overhead, scattering through the branches. One girl hides behind the fat trunk of a tree. When her friend finishes counting, she opens her eyes to begin the hunt. But there’s no sign of her anywhere. It quickly becomes apparent that her friend’s temporary disappearance is a permanent one. Her soul has taken flight with the blackbirds.
The director Filippo Meneghetti never connects this opening scene with the characters who populate the rest of the film. His visually distinctive metaphor for loss lingers in the background like a nightmare that can’t be shaken off. For the first part of Two of Us, the film is told from Madeleine’s (Martine Chevallier) point of view. Widowed with two adult children, she lives alone in the top floor flat of a charming apartment building. When her neighbor Nina (Barbara Sukowa) visits, she and Madeleine embrace and later spend the night together. With Nina beside her, Madeleine is affectionate, impassioned and besotted with her lover.
Like Meryl Streep’s adult children in The Bridges of Madison County, Madeleine’s possessive son Frédéric and daughter Anne can’t imagine their mother with an autonomous love life. Certainly not one that has nothing to do with them or their long-since departed father. Keenly aware of their limits, Madeleine maintains a heterosexual façade with them. She plays, if not the grieving widow for them, then a celibate one. They seem to be aware of Nina’s sustained presence in their mother’s life but are self-centered enough to also be indifferent to her. For them, she’s simply the neighbor.
Compared with her paramour, Nina is impatient for the deception to end. They’ve planned to sell Madeleine’s flat so they can settle together — after many closeted years — in Rome. Madeleine invites her children and grandson over to dinner to tell them the truth, but she loses her nerve. When the real estate agent tells Nina by chance that Madeleine’s changed her mind about selling, she unleashes years of pent up fury. Shortly thereafter, the stress of the situation — being caught between her family and her lover — seems to be the cause of Madeleine’s subsequent stroke.
What happens next directly recalls the opening scene. When Madeleine wakes up in the hospital, she’s lost the ability to speak or even to communicate. It’s not clear if she even recognizes Nina. The woman she once was is trapped inside an unyielding silence. Two of Us captures the double horror of Madeleine’s sudden infirmity and Nina’s reduced role in her life. To Madeleine’s children, she’s a stranger.
Knowing nothing about their actual relationship, Anne (Léa Drucker) hires a caretaker for her mother — a maddening decision that cuts Nina out of Madeleine’s life. At this point Meneghetti turns the film over to the great German actress Barbara Sukowa. As Nina, Sukowa embodies the anxiety and rage that many queer people live with. Historically, our relationships have been invalidated by the state and by our families. We form attachments that aren’t considered real or equal to the traditional idea of a marriage between a man and a woman.
Fueled by her guilt, and the unjust circumstances, Nina makes one thrillingly reckless, desperate decision after another. She wants to nurse Madeleine back to health just as any spouse or partner would. What’s astonishing about the film is how the director creates a sense of urgency for the separated lovers. And Sukowa’s Nina is as indomitable as a superhero. From the onset of Madeleine’s illness, even though she’s right across the hall, the distance from their shared life is now immense. But she’s so clear-eyed in her devotion to Madeleine, and so disdainful of society’s conventions, no prissy nurse or daughter will stand in the way of getting her arms around the woman she loves.