Time is a fickle beast. Throughout Two of Us, the passage of time is consistently referred to; two young girls counting to 30 while playing hide and seek, a clock heirloom on the mantlepiece, or some gradually burning eggs left waiting on the stove top. Time is one of our greatest enemies and a constant threat to the lives of our two love struck protagonists as they wonder how much time they have left, and how to make the best out of the time that they do.
Neighbours Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Mado (Martine Chevallier) have shared much of their lives together, both in love and in their respective apartments. For all intents and purposes, they live together, and have done for many years, though their relationship is a secret to everyone but themselves. After Mado suffers a stroke and requires 24-hour care, incapable of moving or even talking, Nina strives to take care of her before it’s too late, all the while hiding their relationship from Mado’s ever-present daughter, Anne (Léa Drucker).
At some point in the above description, you may have felt a strange sense of déjà vu. Two of Us is this year’s French entry for the Academy Awards’ Best International Feature Film category featuring a tender drama about two elderly people, in which one of them suffers a stroke. Eight years prior, Amour directed by Michael Haneke was the French entry for the same category with much of the same storyline. Why France has such a curious fixation on this exact story shall remain a mystery, but both films are able to live apart from one another, as the newer entry into the canon takes fewer tugs at your heart strings and more at your funny bone.
During the second act, the film strikes gold with some light-hearted comedy in the rivalry between Nina and Mado’s new carer, the hapless Muriel (Muriel Bénazéraf). Nina’s sharp jabs at Muriel’s supposed ineptitude or her dramatic attempt at victory by literally committing a crime are a combination of funny and surprising, but Muriel may steal the show with her terrific evil glare at Nina and her dastardly ways. It’s not often the film turns to comedy, but when it lands it proves mightily effective.
The relationship between Nina and Mado takes centre stage for much of Two of Us, their similar but combatting personalities are reflected wonderfully in the production design of their apartments. Crucially never visited until Mado is taken ill, Nina’s apartment is a blank canvas; bare walls, wooden floors, and an empty fridge speak to the ties Nina has to her own independence; her life is across the corridor. Mado’s flat, meanwhile, is bursting with a life happily lived; family portraits, heirlooms, and stories are plastered all over the décor. Nina’s true home is here with the love of her life, a love unfortunately unbeknownst to the rest of the world owing to Mado’s fear of what it would do to her family.
Their respective performances are the crux of the film, and two impressive performances they are. Performing a role in which much of her acting is relegated to watchful eyes and the glimmer of a smile threatening to show itself as Nina hurries around her apartment is no easy feat, but Chevallier gives a lovely performance. So much can be said for the small moments she’s granted to express herself, and even as she regains some control over her limbs, her eyes are never brighter than they are when looking at Nina.
Barbara Sukowa, meanwhile, is the star of the show, with the unending frustration of being unable to care for her might-as-well-be spouse. The German-native speaks French beautifully, though her accent is a brilliantly subtle reminder of her existence as an Other to Mado’s inquisitive family. In her verbal duels with Muriel or her heart wrenching retellings of their own love story, Sukowa’s Nina is equal parts fierce and vulnerable, unknowing of what a future sans Mado might look like.
Sound plays a crucial role throughout the film; the steadily amplified rumbling of a washing machine, or the crescendo of a doorbell mixed with a hair dryer becomes overwhelming. This repeated aural motif is frequently a signifier of bad news, cranking the tension until the moment strikes. Music, too, is important to the relationship between Nina and Mado. In a film highlight, Nina blasts Sul Mio Carro by Petula Clark (one of the numerous versions of I Will Follow Him) on vinyl through the halls of their apartments, trying to awaken any dormant memories left in the decaying mind of her love. The song brilliantly bookends the film and serves as a poignant reminder of one of their strongest memories. It’s a shame, then, that the film’s score rarely registers as anything other than a potential B-side of a Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score – it fails to compliment the emotion as effectively as Sul Mio Carro.
At times, the tender drama teeters a little too closely to melodrama, as a curious subplot around a financial deal not followed through, a heartfelt declaration of love from a distance, and a mad dash for freedom from a hospice would not look out of place in an extended run of episodes of Eastenders. It’s a sequence that threatens to ruin what is a lovely, moving portrait of two women who love each other so dearly they would put themselves in harms way for one another. Two of Us comes through the other side by the skin of its teeth.
What it may lack in perceived originality when compared with Amour, Two of Us wins you over with its lightly humorous, touching story of two lovers separated through no fault of their own. It may not have the devastating power of last year’s French entry, Les Misérables, it surely will strike a chord with audiences thanks to its heart-warming central romance.
Magnolia Pictures has released TWO OF US in theatres and on demand from February 5th, 2021