Secrets you know

Barbara Sukowa and Filippo Meneghetti on Two Of Us

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa in Filippo Meneghetti’s viscerally charged Two Of Us (Deux)
Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa in Filippo Meneghetti’s viscerally charged Two Of Us (Deux)

The honours keep coming for Filippo Meneghetti’s debut feature (France’s Oscar submission). Two Of Us (Deux), co-written with Malysone Bovorasmy and Florence Vignon, stars Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier (of the Comédie Française) with Léa Drucker, Jérôme Varanfrain, Muriel Bénazéraf, and Augustin Reynes. Sukowa and Chevallier are co-winners of the 2021 Best Actress Lumière Award and just received César nominations, as did Deux for Best First Film (with producers Pierre-Emmanuel Fleurantin and Laurent Baujard) and Best Original Screenplay (Meneghetti and Bovorasmy).

Meneghetti’s enigmatic Two of Us (Lumière Award-winner for Best First Film) has also received a Golden Globe nomination (Best Motion Picture - Foreign Language) and the film has made the 93rd Academy Awards Oscar Best International Film shortlist.

Barbara Sukowa on Two Of Us (Deux): “It’s so much about secrecy and looking.”
Barbara Sukowa on Two Of Us (Deux): “It’s so much about secrecy and looking.”

A lot of hiding and not enough seeking set the stage. Meneghetti takes his time in letting us discover the spaces his characters inhabit, all the while nudging us to become voyeurs and burglars ourselves. Information given by one person to another, we learn, can’t be trusted. Nina (Sukowa) and Madeleine (Chevallier) go about their routines. They have two adjacent apartments and plan to move to Rome together. At night, our perspective resembles that of a spy who is watching from the other side of their shared bed.

Barbara Sukowa gives Nina a forcefulness at the start that becomes evermore urgent when trickery turns into a necessity of despair. We are allowed to jump to conclusions with surprises awaiting us, raising questions of pretence and sacrifice, betrayal and conventions. Martine Chevallier’s subtle and layered performance of a woman who is suffering from decades of silence suffuses Madeleine with trepidation; hers are the entrapments of humanity and our fragility.

From Brooklyn, Barbara Sukowa and from Marseille, Filippo Meneghetti joined me on Zoom for a conversation on their Two of Us collaboration.

Barbara Sukowa: “I mean we don’t really know where Nina comes from. We don’t know what her life is before.”
Barbara Sukowa: “I mean we don’t really know where Nina comes from. We don’t know what her life is before.”

Anne-Katrin Titze: Barbara, in this film you are a detective, you become a burglar. There is a shower scene that is second only to Psycho. Everything is in there, Psycho and slapstick at once. Is that what made you want to do the film?

Barbara Sukowa: Yeah, you answered your question why I took the role. Because I could play all those different roles, detective and burglar and and and.

AKT: I loved the spacing and the corridor. It reminded me - although Nina and Madeleine are more than neighbours - of The Snow Queen, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. Gerda and Kai are neighbours and it is Gerda who goes on this gigantic journey to rescue back her beloved neighbour who is frozen by the Snow Queen. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the tale? This wondrous journey you go into …

BS: I’ve forgotten it. I read it as a kid.

AKT: What about your interactions with Muriel? These are some of the most powerful scenes. Can you talk a bit about how you saw these interactions?

In Two Of Us, the hired caregiver Muriel seems to step straight out of a monster line-up, were it not for the very real economic constraints determining her actions. She is characterized as much by what she does as what she doesn’t do for her patient.

Filippo Meneghetti on Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) with her daughter Anne (Léa Drucker): “Everything was a lie.”
Filippo Meneghetti on Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) with her daughter Anne (Léa Drucker): “Everything was a lie.”

BS: I loved Muriel. The actress [Muriel Bénazéraf] - I had a great time interacting with her. It’s a strange power relation. Nina, she uses her power towards that woman. But then in the end they retaliate. Yeah, this class thing comes in very clearly at this point, which is not there before. I mean we don’t really know where Nina comes from. We don’t know what her life is before. We don’t know if she was married. We don’t know what class she is. Is she working class, is she upper class?

AKT: We only know she reads Der Spiegel [the German political magazine].

BS: They [Muriel and Nina] are almost like two lovers fighting for one person, for Madeleine. For different reasons. One fights for her income, the other one fights for love. It’s both legitimate. They are like lovers fighting for the same person.

AKT: The doors and the doorbell have a Kafka-esque element to it. Muriel becomes the gatekeeper between Nina and Madeleine at that point.

BS: Yeah, it’s so much about secrecy and looking. I mean, she becomes a voyeur also, Nina. I think I was asking myself how this situation has maybe contributed to the length of this love relationship. This is sort of an adrenaline charged relationship also. Because all the secrets you know - to keep them, to do that, you need adrenaline. It’s like getting a drug.

Barbara Sukowa on Nina with Madeleine (Martine Chevallier): “This is sort of an adrenaline charged relationship also.”
Barbara Sukowa on Nina with Madeleine (Martine Chevallier): “This is sort of an adrenaline charged relationship also.”

AKT: The secrecy adds to the relationship also, yes. Also Nina’s last name is Dorn, meaning “thorn” in German. The film gives an interesting commentary on generations as well. That it is the little boy - by the way the actor [Théo played by Augustin Reynes] is great - who points to a truth hidden in plain sight. It is about generations understanding relationships.

Filippo Meneghetti: It is. I guess the little boy’s character [Théo] is a lot about transmission. How is he going to relate to the story that he is witnessing at that age later on in his life? What is he learning from his mother [Anne played by Léa Drucker] or from his uncle [Frédéric played by Jérôme Varanfrain] about his grandmother [Madeleine]? There’s also another theme in the film in the way in which the daughter and the son are kind of taking over the mother. This kind of switch in generations.

AKT: Right, yes.

FM: You usually see the other way around. It’s a very interesting relation. We can all relate to that somehow. The relation changes and the power relation that goes with it changes, how you deal with it and what is at stake emotionally. It is a very complex thing to deal with.

AKT: I liked how many moments affect the senses. I am thinking for instance of the kitchen, the pivotal scene with the pan when you really get your audience to want to run into the kitchen and rescue the pan from the fire. There are several scenes that get us viscerally involved through the senses.

Barbara Sukowa gives Nina a forcefulness at the start that becomes evermore urgent when trickery turns into a necessity of despair.
Barbara Sukowa gives Nina a forcefulness at the start that becomes evermore urgent when trickery turns into a necessity of despair.

FM: We try to do that and hopefully it works. I really tried to engage the audience in the film. In cinema what I like is to use all the tools that I have, which are many. Especially I love to use sounds and in the pan scene the sound of the onion was something that I had in mind since a long time.

It is interesting for me to use something that is completely real in everyday life and to push it to a place in which it becomes just an emotion. It becomes something else. But I don’t want the audience to know that too much. The strategy was to get those everyday elements more intense more intense more intense till they switch to this emotion quality. At the end the goal is to get the audience as much as I can into the characters’ perspective.

AKT: Betrayal is a big theme.

FM: Indeed!

AKT: Betrayal and the idea that you never really know your parents.

FM: Betrayal is exactly the right word to describe Anne’s character and what she feels. We talked a lot about it with Léa Drucker who plays Anne.

AKT: She is terrific, she is absolutely wonderful in conveying this.

FM: She is a wonderful actress. I had the chance to have Barbara, Martine, and Léa. Three great actresses.

Two Of Us (Deux) has received four César nominations, a Golden Globe nomination and is Oscar shortlisted
Two Of Us (Deux) has received four César nominations, a Golden Globe nomination and is Oscar shortlisted

AKT: Great start! Where will you go from there? But we were at betrayal …

FM: Yeah, it is also a film about impostors. Not being the one you think you are. For Anne it is super difficult and very hard. For her, her mother is a role model. She always thought that that’s the ideal woman; loving, caring, being able to hold on even when there are problems to be there for her family. And suddenly she realises that her mother never trusted her enough to tell her who she really is.

I believe in every love relationship - love, again, is a very complex thing - and mother/daughter is a very important love relation - trust is the founding of every love relation. So for her it’s “If you don’t trust me, Mom, how can I relate to you?” Everything was a lie. That is very hard to handle and it takes a great deal of will to get over it. At first, I think she’s just hurt in a very deep way by this betrayal.

AKT: Anybody would be. I think it has very little to do with gender or preferences or sexuality. It is mainly the betrayal that she didn’t know anything about such a huge part of her mother’s life.

FM: That’s completely right. That’s exactly what we wanted to depict. I think it’s very real. I know personally people that had that kind of experience.

Read what Filippo Meneghetti had to say on creating a mind space, the irony of the cat, and hiding and seeking.

The Golden Globe Awards ceremony will take place on February 28 from The Beverly Hilton Hotel.

The César Awards are due to be revealed on March 12 live at the Olympia Theatre in Paris.

Magnolia Pictures’ Two of Us is available in virtual cinemas and VOD.

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