You can see why Filippo Meneghetti's Two of Us elbowed its way onto the fringes of the awards conversation earlier this year, earning a Golden Globe nod for Best Foreign Film and winning the French César for Best First Film. This is a refined yet surprisingly suspenseful chamber piece, centring on a couple of long-time galpals - widowed Frenchwoman Mado (Martine Chevallier) and well-travelled German Nina (Barbara Sukowa) - who inhabit adjacent flats in the same Parisian apartment block. They're cosmopolitan enough for greying awards voters to see something of themselves in them, maybe, and possibly a little too comfortable to fire the imagination at first: as we join them, they're discussing selling up, pooling their resources and relocating to Rome to see out their days. Yet Mado and Nina are keeping a secret from the world, namely that while they present as friendly neighbours, they've actually been in a relationship for many years. Furthermore, they've been keeping secrets from one another, most pressing of all the fact that the meek Mado, who has children where the more imposing Nina doesn't, is reluctant to sell up and come out. This, we gather, is the generation the Pride parades passed by, playing out their affections in connecting rooms so dark and fearful that they might as well be closets. As Meneghetti and co-writer Malysone Bovorasmy turn the screw on their protagonists, this carefully managed co-existence begins to unravel. First, poor Mado succumbs to a silencing stroke; then, the lies and evasions necessary to maintain the lovers' happiness fall subject to a renewed scrutiny. We can't say we haven't been warned: the film opens with a haunting prologue - surely a dream or nightmare, though it's not framed as such - in which one party disappears during a game of hide-and-seek. What follows is imbued with a separation anxiety of its own.
Very quickly, Meneghetti identifies and hones in on the multiple sources of tension within what could have been a flat domestic set-up. A long, unbroken shot watches steak sizzling itself black on an untended stove. A restless Nina nervily taps a teaspoon against a coffee mug. And he stages arresting setpieces, too: the night after the pivotal medical emergency, Nina creeps into Mado's empty bed for comfort, and is almost discovered there the next morning by her soulmate's clueless children. We sense that any character played by Barbara Sukowa is going to be experienced enough to play the game - to duck in and out of her beloved's life when there's nobody else around to notice. What you perhaps wouldn't expect is Nina making efforts to nobble those standing between Mado and herself, at which point a film that looked as though it might well wind up in the same middlebrow rut as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or Amour reveals it has a healthy amount of Stephen King coarsing through its veins. It, too, has been hiding its true identity from the world: it's a thriller that's been passing, for half its length, as a respectable arthouse drama. The deceit entails the actresses playing their own extended game of hide-and-seek: Sukowa literally dodging an annoyingly attentive caregiver (Muriel Bénazéraf), while weighing up how much to let onto Mado's other visitors, Chevallier - a veteran of the Comédie-Française - quietly extraordinary in her suggestion that Mado's spirit is still somewhere within her debilitated physical form, that the woman Nina adores (and who adores Nina) hasn't entirely disappeared from sight. Meneghetti shoots them both in tight close-ups, searching each of these hugely expressive faces for signs of life and proofs of love - and realising this pursuit can be as thrilling to watch as any footchase.
Two of Us is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema, Prime Video, BFI Player and the Peccadillo Pod.