by Joshua Ray on Nov 6, 2020

Throughout the 29th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival slate. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up your virtual tickets.

Filippo Meneghetti’s debut narrative feature, Two of Us (original French title: Duex), is somewhat of an anomaly in queer cinema. Coming-out films arrive in wildly varying forms, as can be seen in the lack of representational overlap in recent queer-canon entries Carol (2015), Moonlight (2016), and Call Me by Your Name (2017). They are also the most likely to rise to the mainstream surface from the deeper layers of the LGBTQIA+ “niche.” This is a possible sign that audiences at large may not be ready for stories about queer people who aren’t necessarily struggling with that identity.

What’s rarer still is to see older gay, lesbian, or bisexual closeted characters. What’s even more novel is a film that exposes the raw nerve of the newly out through genre mechanics without expressly becoming a rote exercise in genre-but-with-gays. Two of Us finds that coming out – especially late in life for all and under these characters’ specific circumstances – can have the same pulse-pounding, anxiety-inducing bodily effects typically reserved for taut thrillers.

The central Two in question are Nina (Barbara Sukowa), an Austrian emigrée to Paris, and her longtime girlfriend, Madeline (Martine Chevallier), who happens to have been the reason for Nina’s move. The two retirees live in what is legally Madeline’s apartment, with Nina’s flat just across the hall. To the outside world, they’re the best of friends, and Nina is regarded as a permanent extension of Madeline’s family. The couple is in the midst of planning their final days in France, with an eye toward selling their homes and spending the rest of their days together on the beaches of Greece. Madeline is reluctant to tell her family about her plans to move, let alone come out to them. Nina, on the other hand, is fully convinced (and convincing) that, after years of living undercover, this is what they not only need but deserve.

The love between the two women is made wholly credible by the two veteran European performers, with credit also due to newbie Meneghetti’s careful direction. Chevallier is something of a character actor, having steadily worked in French film and television for five decades. Yet Two of Us could be seen as a breakout for her. She’s ostensibly the co-lead for the film’s first third, carrying a loving effervescence conflicted by her deep-seated familial status and her decades-long passion for her partner. However, in its shift from domestic drama into tragic nail-biter, Two of Us presents a new challenge for Chevallier – requiring her to play a immobile and mute stroke survivor who can only hint at the roiling anguish in her mind.

However, Meneghetti’s film is really a showcase for Sukowa, who rose to prominence with roles in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Lola (1981), films by the George Washington of the New Queer Cinema Mount Rushmore, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In the years since, she’s become a consistent presence in world cinema and even stateside with parts in Amazon Prime’s Hunters (2020-) series, Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria Bell (2019), and the Charlize Theron-starring Atomic Blonde (2017). As Two of Us transitions into a pseudo-thriller about bound souls being ripped apart by illness and the ensuing fight over the right to care, Sukowa is tasked with performing a gamut of emotions in extremis. She carries guilt with self-righteousness, simmering desperation with outward calm, and heartache with myopic hope.

In Two of Us, the circumstances that threaten to separate Nina and Madeline are executed with a specificity that, if not present, might have made it an anonymous exercise destined for the lower rungs of LGBTQIA+ cinemas. By committing to this specificity, Meneghetti, along with the expert definition that Sukowa and Chevallier bring to their characters, has crafted a clear mirror for queer viewers, while also providing viewers who do not identify as such with an empathetic vessel to experience closeted queer life.

Virtual tickets for Two of Us are available to MO and IL viewers from Nov. 5 - 22 and can be purchased here.