In Filippo Meneghetti’s moving feature debut Two of Us, ageing couple Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) and Nina (Barbara Sukowa) have loved each other for years but live separately in the same apartment building. Their relationship is kept totally secret; even Madeleine’s two adult children don’t suspect that Nina is anything more than the friendly ‘Madame Dorn’ from across the hall.

Martine Chevallier as Madeleine in lesbian romantic drama Two of Us, or Deux
Courtesy of Paprika Films

What initially seems like a mischievous role-playing game takes a more serious turn when it becomes apparent that Madeleine will have to tell her children about Nina before the two of them can embark on their shared dream – selling her apartment and moving to Rome together. But before she can do so, Madeleine’s health abruptly deteriorates, leaving her partially immobile and speechless. Nina, distraught but determined to stay by the side of the woman she loves, must now scheme and sneak her way back into Madeleine’s life.

It’s easy to imagine how a film like this could fall back onto boring dramatic clichés – or else equally tedious comedic ones – so it’s a testament to Meneghetti’s smart direction and engaging screenplay (written with Malysone Bovorasmy) that this never feels like the case. Unnerving, ambiguous dream sequences lend this film a sinister sense of foreboding even before things go wrong, and Meneghetti directs certain sequences featuring Nina creeping around Madeleine’s apartment as if Two of Us were a thriller.

The film also has a subtly dark sense of humour, which comes out in the battle of wills between Nina and Madeleine’s suspicious caregiver Muriel (Muriel Benazeraf). Nina is prepared to play dirty in order to turn Madeleine’s daughter against Muriel, and the mopey, bumbling Muriel eventually retaliates. This initially tense dynamic does, unfortunately, develop into one of the film’s weaker parts, only to be totally forgotten about by the final act.

Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa star as Madeleine and Nina in lesbian film Two of Us
Courtesy of Paprika Films

Nonetheless, despite the occasional narrative misstep, the chemistry between the leads is irresistible – all the more impressive given that, for the latter two thirds of the film, Madeleine’s condition means she is barely able to communicate with Nina at all. Chevallier does a huge amount with an intensely limiting role, charging every subtle movement or glance with a huge degree of feeling. Sukowa gives an equally impassioned performance conveying the depth of Nina’s desperation and passion; together, the actresses bolster this romantic drama with confidence and spirit. Two of Us might not blow you away, but its central romance is so exquisite that it’s guaranteed to warm the heart of even the most cynical viewer.

Two of Us releases in UK cinemas and on digital July 16th.