An elderly lesbian romance with an Italian first-time director and a veteran German star, "Two of Us" is certainly a daring choice for France's entry to this year's Oscars.
Director Filippo Meneghetti "didn't expect it for sure" when his film was selected for the honor, fending off heavyweight contenders such as Maiwenn's "DNA" and Francois Ozon's "Summer of 85."
The movie, shot on a limited budget, drew strong reviews for its originality and subtlety on its French release last February, but sold fewer than 50,000 tickets on a limited theatrical release.
According to Meneghetti, the film's surprise success may lie in its relatable themes -- even despite its seemingly unusual subject matter.
"While the film tells the story of two aging women, I tend to see that the film speaks to different people in different places," Meneghetti told AFP ahead of the film's US release this Friday.
"It's a little bit universal," he added, pointing to several student juries that had bestowed honors on the film about a pair of septuagenarians.
"Two Of Us" tells the story of retired women Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), who have kept their passionate affair secret for decades.
The pair live next door to one another in a small, conservative French town where everyone, even Madeleine's daughter (played by Lea Drucker), is oblivious to their romance.
But Nina, a foreigner, finds the clandestine relationship increasingly difficult to accept -- a dilemma made far worse when a stroke leaves Madeleine incapacitated, and Nina is reduced in the community's eyes to nothing more than a nosy, prying neighbor.
While "Two of Us" straddles multiple genres, with elements of romance, drama and thriller, it is fundamentally a story about how humans self-censor aspects of their life -- including sexuality -- due to society's pressures and expectations, said the director.
"Society and your family teach you how to look at yourself and the world," setting in place patterns that remain throughout adulthood, said Meneghetti.
"I believe everybody can connect to this to struggle... especially when you're a teenager," he added.
- 'Live your sexuality' -
France has submitted works by foreign directors in the past, including Luis Bunuel's 1973 winner "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie."
For German actress Sukowa, the movie works because of its remote, small-town setting, where "social control... is of course much bigger" than in a major international city like Berlin, Paris or New York.
For the same reason, the film has won fans among "people who are in countries where you cannot live your sexuality freely," she told AFP.
The film was written in 2013, around the time of the rise to prominence of French pro-life conservative activist group La Manif pour Tous ("Protest for Everyone").
While the actual plot is a "pure invention," Meneghetti admits the anti-gay marriage protests were "very motivating."
Still, for Sukowa, the film was "not even so much about sexual orientation... it's just about two people who love each other and they have been together for such a long time... how, why have they managed."
And Sukowa, 70, who won best actress at the Cannes festival in 1986 for "Rosa Luxemburg" and recently appeared in US television series "12 Monkeys," praised her director for taking a gamble on two veteran female stars.
"I thought it was a very courageous choice of him, because he could have had financing and all this much earlier if he had two young, attractive hot actresses," she said.
"So, I thought this is somebody who is really serious about what he wants to tell."