Two of Us: Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa in love, but you wouldn't know it by looking at them.
It was the greatest love story never told. For decades, Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Mado (Martine Chevallier) have lived a romance in the shadows, on the same floor, in opposite apartments. Nobody knew. Not the neighbors, not Mado’s grown children. But sudden illness has a way of shattering many pensioners’ plans for the future. The posters and trailers for Two of Us should come equipped with warning signs: Heart-Wrenching Next 100 Minutes.
Judging by the bare-bones layout of Nina’s digs, all of their time together was spent in Mado’s fitted-out flat. By now, the couple have the art of camouflage down to a science, particularly Nina. When a magazine photographer arrives to shoot a spread on Mado’s apartment, Nina scatters like a cockroach at midnight after the kitchen light’s been switched on. And try as she might, Mado fears putting their love on public view. The recurring fantasy sequence that opens the picture finds director Filippo Meneghetti underscoring Mado’s apprehension, his camera positioned to eavesdrop over her left shoulder.
The plan was for the two to sell their units and escape to Rome, where their remaining years together in the sun would fade into romantic bliss. But when Nina runs into the realtor, he lets slip Mado’s reluctance to make the sale final. The big hurt comes when Mado tells Nina that she finally summoned the courage required to come out to her children, even though she hadn’t. The intensity of Nina’s anger upon learning the news is great enough to force viewers back in their seats. But that’s nothing compared to the horror that awaits Nina when she awakens to find her mate in a vegetative state. In no time, daughter Anne (Léa Drucker) hires a live-in caretaker. To Anne and her brother Frédéric (Jérôme Varanfrain), Nina is nothing more than the nice lady who shares a floor with their mother. She’s locked out of the flat they shared for the first time in their relationship, because in the eyes of the world, the love of Nina’s life is just her neighbor across the hall.
Meneghetti does some of his best work in silence. While picking up items to bring to the hospital, neither of Mado’s children stop to question why the glass next to the bathroom sink contains two toothbrushes. Exploiting depth-of-field to its fullest, Meneghetti captures Mado’s stroke from the point-of-view of a furiously boiling pot. It isn’t until Nina enters the front door at the back of the frame and walks all the way through the living room to the kitchen that we realize Mado has collapsed while cooking.
But even though the film appears to eschew melodrama as if out of spite, Meneghetti and co-writers Malysone Bovorasmy and Florence Vignon can’t resist a subplot involving the caretaker and her son, out to bilk money from Nina, who in turn exposes a side of her personality that, for a moment, borders on stalker. Given the indignities she has suffered due to their invisible romance, Nina probably felt that she had earned the right to let off an occasional blast of steam. How must it have felt, sitting across from Mado and looking in her eyes while her daughter referred to her late father as the love of her mother’s life? Through it all, one thing keeps Nina going: a steadfast conviction that her love is Mado’s best course of treatment.
At this stage in her life, Nina, the more relaxed of the two, is of a mind that nobody cares about the goings on of a couple of old dykes. Hopefully, audiences won’t feel the same way. It’s a difficult subject to sell, but given the performances and the director’s penchant for visual detail, anything, even the most depressing subject matter, can find joy in its completion. ★★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
Leona — Ariela (Naian González Norvind, who shares screenwriting credit with director Isaac Cherem) is a 25-year-old woman eking out a living as an artist in Mexico City. A child of divorce, she lives under her mother Estrella’s (Carolina Politi) roof. As the days pass, Ariela is feeling mounting pressure from all sides to find the right mensch with whom to settle down. (Her bubbie was a bride at 15 and the mother of three at 18; there’s this familial obligation in need of honoring!) Any Jew who has ever partaken in an interfaith romance will find in Leona some of the freshest, most authentic first-date dialogue-exchanges ever committed to film. Over drinks, Ariela mentions to her gentile companion that members of the community helped boost her career. Iván (Christian Vazquez) interprets this to mean the Jewish community, not the community of professional muralists to which Ariela belongs. Ashamed of her itinerant daughter’s decision to date outside the faith, mom kicks Ariela to the curb. Upon learning of the boy’s Mexican heritage, her father, never at a loss for witty repartee, mutters, “At least he’s not named Jesús.” (No, but the actor who plays him is named Christian.) A request to stay at her father’s place is met with a peck on the cheek followed by a, “No, sweetheart.” With no place to go, she and Iván decide to move in together. The results? Disastrous! We open and close with head-to-toe shots of two naked women: fade-in on a young bride-to-be about to take a ritualistic plunge in the mikvah, fade-out on our heroine, Leona (Spanish for lioness), alone and triumphant in her apartment. What comes between is the stuff a rejoicing romantic comedy is made of. Now streaming at the Digital Gym Virtual Cinema. 2019 — S.M. ★★★★
Minari — For a refreshing change, the Korean immigrants who embody Minari are not fresh off the boat; unable to find the financial stability needed to make it in 1980s California, the family moves to the Ozarks to start anew. But the originality stops there, and in its wake, we begin charting an all-too familiar course. The kids are cloyingly precocious. “I’m not pretty, I’m good-looking,” young David (Alan Kim) shouts while trying to dead-end whatever inroads antagonistic cupcake Grandma Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) is attempting. If writer-director-ageist Lee Isaac Chung depicted Korean immigrants in half the sentimentally condescending manner as he does Soonja, festival audiences would have cancelled the picture halfway through the third reel. Treated like an escapee from an inter-galatic nursing home, the adorably demented oldster teaches the children to gamble and curse. She’s a firm believer that Mountain Dew is water sourced from naturally occurring springs, and just wait until you see the trick bedwetting little David has in store for the batty crone. Even before the drama kicked in full throttle. one felt the Korean-Amerian production beginning to give under the weight of Hollywood’s thumbprint, so much so that even the most artistically-undemanding among us might consider giving a subtitled film a try. With: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, and Will Patton as buggy Apostle Paul. 2020 — S.M. ★
The Queen of Black Magic — Rather than a wedding, the departure point for this remake of Liliek Sudjio’s same-named 1981 Indonesian cult horror item is a reunion of sorts at an orphanage. Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), will any day now breathe his last, and a trio of acquiescent repatriates are coming to pay their respects to the man who raised them. Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan), the young son of former orphan Hanif (Ario Bayu) and wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid), bears the brunt of much of the film’s introductory exposition: as a current resident tells him, twenty years ago, Ms. Mirah (Ruth Marini) returned alone after an outing with orphan Murni (Putri Ayudya) and alleged that the young girl was abducted by a demon. Her rantings led to banishment behind the mysterious green door, currently situated just down the hall from the children’s wing. Some say her ghost spent the ensuing decades locked in the room. As for Murni, she was never seen again. Not only does Haqi discover the door, the inquisitive tyke also finds, buried beneath a safe, a photo album containing a faded photo of — you guessed it — Mirah and Murni! In the original, Murni’s main concern was to work her hoodoo only on those who participated in chucking her over a cliff. The 2019 transmogrification allows nothing to get in the way of Murni’s supernatural spree killing. That includes an anorexic guest who, after slitting her throat and abdomen, lives to feast on fuzzy caterpillars, and a busload of foundlings sent to their death. In each case, the resultant black magic instills within its victims a propensity for smashing their heads into any flat surfaces they near: doors, walls, windshields, etc. One question became a matter of extreme importance: our three sons knew of the horrors that went on behind these walls. Why bring their families to the reunion? There was an innocence to the Ed Wood-ish awfulness that flavored the original. What goes on here is calculated repugnance. 2019. — S.M. ●