Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa in Two of Us (Deux) (2019 (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Award-winning Actress Barbara Sukowa on Her Role in French Lesbian Love Story, ‘Two of Us’

Actress Barbara Sukowa talks with PopMatters about acting in a lesbian love story in ‘Two of Us’ (Deux).

Two of Us (Deux)
Filippo Meneghetti
Magnolia Pictures (US) / Peccadillo Pictures (UK)
5 February 2021 (US) / 28 May 2021 (UK)

Filippo Meneghetti’s Two of Us (Deux, 2019), co-written by Malysone Bovorasmy and Florence Vignon, tells the story of two retired women, Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), who have secretly been in love for decades. Madeleine’s family believes they’re just neighbours and friends, and while the pair dream of loving freely, she puts off telling them the truth. When Madeleine suffers a stroke, their secret life, hopes, and dreams are turned upside down. Impeded by the daughter and caretaker, Nina must find a way to stay close to her secret love. 

Sukowa has worked with seminal European filmmakers, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder on Women in New York (1977), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Lola (1981), to collaborating with Margarethe von Trotta, for whom she has played strong women from history, first the Polish philosopher and revolutionary socialist in Rosa Luxemburg (1986), then the German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist in Hannah Arendt (2012). She has also worked with David CronenbergLars von Trier, and Agnieszka Holland, and Two of Us sees her working with a director making his feature debut.

In conversation with PopMatters, Sukowa speaks about Meneghetti’s strong vision and her admiration for his insistence on telling a love story about older women. She also reflects on the craft of performance, Fassbinder’s clarity of vision, von Trotta’s amusement at her relationship with the camera, and giving the audience room to lie with the film.

Why acting as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?

I went to an all-girls school and I would always play the men because I was the best actor [laughs]. I enjoyed it but I never thought it could be a profession. Acting was this space for playing, and I wouldn’t even call it acting at that time. You were in a very safe place where you always knew what the end was, and you could express yourself without holding back because you weren’t going to be criticised. 

Going to the United States as an exchange student when I was sixteen, the high school was a little more professional, and they had a drama class. They also had a one-act play festival in Southern California, and I received an award. It was then that I started to think about how everybody told me I should be an actor, and maybe it was a possibility. My hometown was also very progressive with interesting theatre, and so all this came together in a way that I finally thought, ‘Maybe I’ll try it.’

Acting, like life, is a constant learning curve, a journey of becoming comfortable with who we are, understanding ourselves and our world more fully. Does each role have the capacity to teach you something specific to that experience, and is confidence an integral part of this?

You have a different experience because you’re playing different characters, but the longer I do this, how it actually happens becomes more of a mystery. I used to have the answers and I’d say, “I researched this, prepared that, and it came together, then I talked to the director.” I had this process, but there’s something happening somewhere that’s unknown to me.

Every single time there’s this insecurity — will it happen; will it work? I know the ingredients, but there’s something else. I’m unaware of what it is, or I can’t describe it, but it appears at one point or not, and whether it will work makes you very insecure. 

You can say to yourself, “Listen, you’ve done things that we’re okay, and people liked, you have to calm down”, but every time I start something, I’m never sure it’s going to work. We’re evolving creatures, and I don’t believe in this thing about ‘true selves’, which the new age people are all talking about, that somewhere in you there’s something that comes out. We constantly edit our life story. It’s much more illogical than we think.

As an actor, does your interest in a project need to be character-driven or are the themes and ideas that complement it with equal importance?

It’s often not about my characters. What’s important is the people I will work with.

What intrigued me about Two of Us was that it was a story I’d not seen on film — a love story, and also an erotic love story between two older women. I have seen love stories about younger women, but not about passion, oppression, secrecy, and all these illicit things in love stories with older women. Another thing that fascinated me was the story was written by younger people and a young man directed it. I thought that would be a very interesting skew on the story.

He’s a first-time director, which is always a risk because he could be a good writer and a bad director, you don’t know. I met him, and I found him to be very passionate about the project. He could have likely financed it much earlier if he had chosen younger women because it would have been a safer choice for a producer, but he insisted on doing it with older women. I thought that was very courageous. I had the feeling he had a vision. That’s why I did this. 

As much as the camera is controlled by the filmmaker, do you treat it as your own tool, with an awareness of how you occupy the film frame?

I’ve made a lot of films with Margarethe von Trotta and she was always joking that I didn’t know where the camera was. I’m focused on my partner and so their eyes are very important to me. It took me a long time, but now I have a feeling for the camera. I’ll sometimes ask if it’s a close up and, “What are you framing?” I didn’t know that when I was younger and nobody told me, but I know better now.

The other actor is still important for me as a reference, and it used to be that the actor was on set and the director was standing next to the camera, so you played a little for the director. This doesn’t happen anymore because the director now is at a monitor somewhere, not even on set. I miss the director being there.

Over the course of your career, how do you perceive the way in which the filmmaking process has evolved, and how much is the technology responsible?

It has changed a lot, but I can only talk from my limited experience. I’ve never made a big studio film, I’ve mostly done European films and in America, independent films. 

The first thing, of course, is time. We had a lot more time when we started a movie, the preparation was longer. Whereas lately the films I’ve done are a lot more rushed. With today’s technology, when they shoot on video they feel they can do a lot of takes, and I have a feeling they get more of the film done in the editing.

I worked with [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder and he shot the film the way he was going to edit it. On Tuesday night we’d have the edited version of the scene we shot on Monday. He shot it in a way that he knew exactly what he wanted.

Also, today’s HD cameras are sometimes very harsh, and I’ve shot films that are so dark onset that I couldn’t see my partner across from me. The cameraman told me to look through the camera because it sees more than I see. There has definitely been a change, and it’s different. 

Watching Two of Us, even though the caretaker is keeping the two lovers apart, I felt sorry for her when Nina takes measures to remove her. It struck me that the characters are all victims of circumstance, forced to make choices, which infuses the drama with a darker shade and a sadness. 

The characters are all ambiguous and complex, and no character is in service of another. They all have their own lives — the daughter, the son, the carer, and even the grandson if you look at how he observes everything. Everybody has an agenda, a goal, and a dream, and they all run into some resistance. 

It’s important to note this film would not work if it were set in Berlin, London, New York. It’s set in a provincial French town where there’s still a lot of prejudice and Nina and Madeleine were dreaming of being together and living their relationship freely in a bigger town, but then Madeleine’s stroke everything changes.

The carer thought she had a lifelong job that doesn’t work out, and Madeleine was widowed at one point. Everyone has to deal with reality, as we all have to, and you can say it’s sad, but everybody has challenges, everybody has an agenda, and everybody runs into obstacles. We watch to see what they do to overcome them or not. 

Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience completes the film experience, does it follow that there’s a transfer in ownership?

I have had many Q&A’s and I’m always surprised how differently people see a film. I have done films where somebody said it was such a great love story, and there was so much hope, while another person said it was a film about loneliness for them.

What I like about Two of Us is that Filippo left room for the audience. There’s not too much explanation. For example, we don’t know where Nina comes from, we don’t know whether she has always been gay or whether she was married. People often ask, who are these young girls at the beginning? Like in Hansel and Gretel, he has these little stones that people can pick up. He hasn’t explained everything, and that gives the audience a lot of room. 

Sometimes people will say to me, “It was great how you played this emotion” and I’ll say, “I didn’t play my emotions, it was your emotions that came out there.” This is what you’re talking about when you say the audience completes the film, or at least each person lives their own experience. If it’s done well, they all lie with the film.

Work cited:

Risker, Paul. “Carol Morley | THE FALLING“. Starburst. 24 April 2015.

Note: This interview was edited for clarity.