A gripping, intense story of love regained

File photoMartine Chevallier, left, and Barbara Sukowa in “Two of Us.”

Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) met by chance 20 years ago and became lovers. Nina, who is blunt and dynamic, and Madeleine, who is shy and reserved, are inseparable. When we meet them, they are planning to sell their adjoining apartment in France and move to Rome to start a new life.

Madeleine, though, is passive and stunted by guilt. She is deeply in love with Nina and enchanted by her firmness of purpose, but her past haunts her. She is the widowed mother of an embittered son (Jerome Varanfrain) and a loyal but naive daughter (Lea Drucker). Before Madeleine can come out to her children, she suffers a stroke and is left paralyzed and speechless.

This is more or less the beginning of Filippo Meneghetti’s “Two of Us,” a romance with the mood of a thriller that asks: How do you compete with adult children and a formidable caretaker with priggish views who want to keep you away from your beloved?

“Two of Us,” which can be seen on various streaming platforms, is full of resentment and symbolism. It’s also full of lyrical tracking shots and long, languid takes (the cinematographer is Aurelien Marra). Meneghetti makes excellent and sometimes sinister use of peepholes, closing doors, apartment keys and the simple sound of a knock on a door. These sequences are accompanied by shadows and half-seen interiors that give the images a suggestive tension.

Meneghetti, who makes his feature debut with “Two of Us,” is a talented filmmaker with a gift for directing women. He loves Nina and Madeleine — her nickname is Mado — and he emphasizes the scary pain of forced separation. He especially loves tight shots of their faces as they register emotion, as when the mute Mado listens intently to a conversation about her fate as Meneghetti fills the screen only with Mado’s eyes as they dart from one voice to another.

“Two of Us” is an intelligent movie. It has flashes of wit and pictorial elegance. But Meneghetti’s handling of the plot’s moral dilemma makes this theme a wee bit inept. Much of the time, Mado’s son complains of his mother’s faithlessness when she ditched his father and took up with Nina. This subplot is not exactly strong. Unless you are fascinated by the whining of a grown man who hasn’t jumped the lesbian hurdle, your eye will wander to the actors.

Meneghetti’s indisputable achievement is the quality of the performances he has obtained from his cast. Sukowa, memorable as the title character in Fassbinder’s “Lola,” is outstanding as the tough, driven Nina, outraged by being relegated to the sidelines. As Nina, Sukowa is a smart, cunning force of nature determined to regain Mado at any cost. Chevallier is amazingly effective, alternately alert and reflective, and never for a minute sentimental.

Meneghetti treats the lesbian love affair with something that passes beyond understanding. It’s presented matter-of-factly with undisguised suspense. The picture is about reclaiming desire.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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