Happily ever after is the cruelest of illusions. If you think about it, everybody’s story ultimately has the same ending and it’s not an upbeat one. I’m often reminded of a savagely funny routine by disgraced comedian Louis C.K. in which he said he’d rather not date anymore because the best case scenario is that you’ll find someone who loves and completes you, and then eventually one of you will watch the other die. That’s the most positive possible outcome. For obvious reasons, movies don’t usually like to go here, yet in one of those strange flukes of timing that brings audiences dueling asteroid movies or back-to-back trips home to the heartland, two new releases find long-term, same-sex couples making difficult decisions as they cope with catastrophic health care crises.
“Two of Us,” which just started streaming at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Streaming Room, is France’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards and stars Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier as neighbors in a Montpellier apartment complex who for decades have surreptitiously been lovers. Their plans to retire to Rome are dashed when the latter suffers a stroke, rendered mute and necessitating care from her children who haven’t the faintest idea about their mom’s secret life. “Supernova” (now playing at the handful of movie theaters that are still open before coming to VOD on Feb. 16) stars Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth as partners of 20 years taking a road trip through northern England’s Lake District as the former struggles with early onset dementia.
I wound up watching the films quite accidentally as a double feature, which is something I wouldn’t recommend as a pick-me-up, but it’s fascinating how the two movies tackle similar subjects with wildly divergent temperaments. Perhaps befitting their countries of origin, the French film is fervent and sensual, flooded with unruly emotions and vivid widescreen photography. Despite being named after an exploding star, the British picture is a model of rigidity and restraint, fussily facing tragedy with the stiffest of upper lips and a visual sensibility resembling porridge. Your personal mileage may vary, but I’ve always preferred more melodrama in my tear-jerkers, and on that front “Two of Us” is a smashing success.
Opening with a metaphorically loaded dream sequence in which two little girls are playing hide-and-seek and one abruptly vanishes, the swaggeringly confident feature debut from director Filippo Meneghetti hurtles out of the gate, establishing the relationship between Sukowa and Chevalier with a carnality seldom granted to senior citizens onscreen. Their lusty physicality and barefoot dancing make it all the crueler when Chevalier is soon stricken, confined to a wheelchair under the watchful eye of a dense daughter who can’t understand why Mom’s friend from across the hall keeps hanging around all the time. The camerawork is as furtive as their affair, spying on the characters through peepholes and around corners.
Meneghetti packs a lot of plot into these 99 minutes, coercing us into siding with Sukowa’s terribly unfair sabotage of a hired caretaker’s duties and a breathless final act that plays like a prison break. It’s a visceral film; you feel the ardor of the lovers in their impossible circumstances, and swoon at the flickers of recognition that cross Chevalier’s otherwise immobile face. Their passionate urgency would probably prove horrifying to the polite company of “Supernova,” a nice movie about nice people.
Driving along the countryside in an old RV and bickering like the adorable old married couple they are, Firth and Tucci are ostensibly visiting old friends en route to a classical piano concert the former is playing in the area. But the stealth purpose of their journey is actually allowing everyone to bid Tucci a fond farewell while he’s still got his wits about him, even having a big party full of back-slapping well-wishers and misty-eyed, crinkly smiles.
Writer-director Harry Macqueen clearly isn’t big on conflict, instead letting our knowledge of what’s to come color the agreeable proceedings. These are gifted under-actors, with Firth in particular doing that thing where he conveys enormous amounts of emotion without moving any of the muscles in his face. What’s missing from the movie, I’m afraid, is the terror. All the postcard cinematography and pleasant people paper over what’s ugliest about this damnable disease, and the devastation of being left alone by somebody you love. A movie on this subject probably shouldn’t go down so easily.
“Two of Us” is now streaming at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room. “Supernova” is in theaters and will be available on demand starting Feb. 16.