Two of Us

Madeleine and Nina

I was intending to watch Two of Us (aka Deux) a few weeks ago and in fact did watch a film called Two of Us, just not this one. That one was a zombie movie set in Thailand. This one is a tense human drama set in Paris. Do not confuse.

Although both feature a pair of women in the central roles, the females in the Thai movie were young women. The women in question here are both pensioners, a pair of secretive lesbians who have lived next door to each other for decades. To be more precise they have both lived in the apartment of Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), while Nina (Barbara Sukowa) has kept her own neighbouring place on as an empty shell, just to keep the heterosexual facade intact.

Two of Us is all about that fiction being exposed to the cold blast of reality after Madeleine gets ill, ends up in hospital and then winds up back at her apartment with a live-in carer. There’s no room for Nina in this equation, a situation only made worse by Madeleine earlier having bottled the decision to out herself to her son and daughter to clear the way for her and Nina to head off openly to Rome together.

Though closeted and fearful, Madeleine is the more sympathetic of the two. Nina has the luxury of being the single operator. No one will get hurt when she declares her orientation. For Madeleine, coming out involves rewriting decades of her children’s history, facing down (or owning up to) the suggestion that she’s been lying to them all this time, and dealing with the charge that she never really loved their father.

Anne with her mother Madeleine
Anne with her mother Madeleine

The drama builds carefully in stages – will Mado (as Nina calls her) tell the grown-up kids? Will the hospitalisation and convalescence flush the secret into the open? And then, just to add jeopardy, will Nina be found out when she starts sneaking into the apartment of the semi-paralysed Nina to grab precious moments with the woman she loves while the live-in carer is asleep? When will the other shoe drop?

Nina and Mado are yin and yang characters. Sukowa, star of the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz and a clutch of other torrid outings by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, plays the hotter, impetuous “fuck’em” side of the equation. Chevallier, an acclaimed theatre actor (and once the wife of Nicolas Cage’s dad, August Coppola), plays the cooler, more reticent and fearful of the two. Chevallier has the harder task, having only her eyes to act with once her character has been cruelly struck down.

Chevallier is helped along by a sound design that’s bold and expressionistic – crows caw (foreboding), the washing machine goes into a spin cycle (mounting tension), an unattended frying pan sizzles (danger), a teaspoon is banged on the side of a cup repeatedly (irritation).

People living in the woke, post-gay world probably won’t find an awful lot to get animated about here. There isn’t much dramatic meat on the bones, and director Filippo Meneghetti’s decision to shoot the film as an everyday drama about nice bourgeois women – warm lighting, spacious genteel apartment, cosy daily rituals – runs counter to the dramatic direction of travel, though his reasons for doing it this way are understandable.

Lives that are complete in themselves is the aim. Which necessarily means making an enemy of Mado’s son and daughter – who might be wilfully hiding from something they could have guessed at before now – as well as the sullen carer Muriel (Muriel Bénazéraf), more of a piece of work than she at first appears.

So high stakes tension isn’t the destination. That said, Meneghetti does try to up the stakes right near the end, when Nina’s exasperation boils over and she decides it’s time to dig deep and find her inner commando.

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Two of Us aka Dead Earth

Alice Tantayanon and Milena Gorum by the pool

Well I was expecting a French film called Two of Us (aka Deux), about two ageing lesbians who have spent decades in the closet. Instead I got this Two of Us (aka Dead Earth) about two young lesbians fighting off a zombie holocaust.

Not quite the same thing, the lesbian aspect to one side. What this Two of Us reminded me of very early on was a great and barely known zombie film called The Battery. The Battery’s USP is the portrait it paints of two guys – former baseball team-mates – who have spent so long in each other’s company, and fighting the zombie holocaust, that they’re kind of sick of the sight of each other. It’s also a neat portrait of the zombie apocalypse some years (perhaps as many as 15) in.

Two of Us takes a similar approach – two young women who have clearly got used to the post-apocalyptic world, easy in each other’s company but bored with it all. “Another day in paradise,” they say to each other in a ritualistic deadpan every day. And it does look pretty good, because these two women are holed up in a Thai holiday hotel, with a still functioning pool, a generator for electricity, supplies of food. They sunbathe, they read books, they swim, and when they need to stray off the beaten track they arm themselves with a machete or baseball bat and head out, confident yet wary – they’ve been doing this for some time.

Thai writer/director Wych Kaosayananda is perhaps best known for cheap and cheerful action fare like Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever but is trying something tonally different in the first two thirds of this film. It’s languid, lush, laid-back even, with a soundtrack of chill-out synths that bubble away, now and again threatening to well up into something but never quite making it. The lighting is flat, sombre, the young women’s affectless voices so far back in the sound mix they can barely be heard.

What’s going on isn’t entirely apparent, though their machete/baseball bat excursion give us a hint that something’s off, as does the look the two exchange when the generator sputters and they have to refuel it. As for the reception they give two non-zombie guys who arrive out of nowhere – no spoilers.

A zombie
Probably a zombie

And then the zombies themselves turn up and things become much more formulaic. If you like a good zombie wipeout movie, this is where your interest starts. It’s more or less where mine ended, though I was gratified to see zombies who run – and as fast they possibly can – rather than just shuffle along. These undead are very, very keen on human flesh.

Any lore? Well the zombies don’t appear to be very good in the water… er… that’s about it.

A partner movie to Kaosayananda’s The Driver, apparently (I haven’t seen it), it’s obviously been made for next to no budget. One deserted hotel, out of season, five speaking roles, a bunch of extras to play the zombies – there’s not an awful lot to co-ordinate.

Kaosayananda handles the action well, with one particular sequence of massive zombie killing a particular standout because the zombies are all shot in silhouette, which looks good, throws our attention fully on the main actors and also allows the director to re-use “dead” zombies again on a night-of-the-dying-dead carousel.

The Battery was an ingenious film with an ingenious ending. This is an ingenious film with a conventional fight-and-flight ending. I liked it. It obviously helps that both Milena Gorum and Alice Tantayanon are good looking, and when the languid hanging around in their bikini bit stops and it’s time to get into commando gear and get going with the zombie-slaying, they rise to that too.

Now for the other Two of Us

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© Steve Morrissey 2020