Filippo Meneghetti’s debut feature is uncommon for two reasons. First, it is a lesbian drama in which sex is incidental. Second, the romantic partners aren’t young or even middle aged – they’re in their golden years. However, the central themes of repression and secrecy are poignantly familiar.
Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) and Nina (Barbara Sukowa) live across from each other in an apartment building somewhere in France, but this is not where they met. It was in Rome that their 20-year relationship started, and it has turned into something deep and existential. In their age, these women have got the measure of themselves and their lot. In each other, they have found a mutual, mature love that promises a very happy retirement. The only problem is that it’s all one big secret, which threatens their dream of returning to the Italian capital for good.
Much of the anguish hinges on Madeleine telling her children, especially her daughter Anne (Lea Drucker), who refers to Nina as ‘Mrs. Dorn’, thinking she is just a neighbour. As Madeleine continues to avoid this most difficult ‘confession’, an unforeseen tragedy derails not only their dream but also the relationship itself.
It’s a premise that’s ripe for melodrama, yet Meneghetti’s script and direction prove tasteful and restrained, which makes this tragic love story all the more affecting. Chevallier and Sukowa are effortless in their performances, showing an authentic romantic chemistry while exuding their respective characters’ particular energy. A widow and mother, Madeleine has been shaped by convention, while Nina seems to have floated through her rather bohemian life. Through deft use of circumstance and dialogue, this taut 90-minute film gives you a sense of their entire lifetimes. Indeed, the pithy richness of these characters could tell several stories.
This strength of script is supported by a sensual energy running through the film. Everything from the whirring of washing machines to the sizzle of burning food is used to convey the characters’ anguish. There’s also a hell of a lot of door knocking and bell ringing, which is apt for a film that’s essentially about communication.