What is it with the recent wave of anti-love stories? Marriage Story showed how a genuine relationship can be suffocated by the byzantine legal system, and Ordinary Love saw its central couple nearly undone by a cancer diagnosis. As morose as the films could sometimes be, they were both excellent in their own ways — demonstrating how love is oftentimes best defined by how it acts in moments of great strain and desperation.

Add Two of Us to this new subgenre. France-based Italian director Filippo Meneghetti‘s debut feature tells a hard-to-predict story, one whose moments of truth are powerful enough to rival those of nearly any other film.

The film follows Nina Dorn (played by German living legend Barbara Sukowa) and Mado Gerard (Martine Chevalier), two older women engaged in a clandestine relationship. The couple hopes to move from their provincial French town to Rome, where they can live out their winter years in the city where they met years earlier. Mado, however, fears the reaction of her two children — neither knows she’s gay, much less that she’s in a relationship with the woman who lives across the hall.

Without giving too much away, Mado’s initial failure to tell her children sends her relationship with Nina into a tailspin, resulting in a seemingly insurmountable obstacle between the two. After initially focusing on Mado, the film shifts its perspective to Nina as she tries to reestablish a connection with her lover without letting Mago’s family get in the way.

The movie is strikingly shot, with some courageous long takes that take a few moments to fully understand. Meneghetti’s directorial style is one with immense promise, but it is still not without its flaws. He seems more interested in getting exciting shots than he is getting shots that have an obvious place within the film’s greater narrative — resulting in beautiful imagery that can occasionally seem out of place.

The film’s biggest problem, however, is the script. In its brief 95-minute runtime, the movie switches from drama to comedy to suspense to comedy and back again several times over. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with genre change-ups, more than a few scenes play out with uncomfortably ambiguous levels of comedy. The deliberation over whether or not to laugh at some things audibly plagued several other people in the audience when I saw the film. The backstory on Nina and Mado’s relationship is also just a bit too ambiguous to be as meaningful as the film wants it to — the flashbacks are expressionistic and vague, not giving the viewer nearly enough to work with.

Many of these problems are amended by Sukowa’s excellent central performance. If the film has difficulty landing on a tone, Sukowa does not. Her inflections and motivations are constantly in step with her characterizations of Nina, giving the film a helpful through-line that keeps its direction in check.

For all of its ups and downs, Two of Us, which was just nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, is still an undoubtedly powerful film about guilt, fear and self-loathing. By focusing on a couple with such a specific impedance in their relationship, the film keeps its eye solely on the particular but appeals to the universal in the process.

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