Monday, July 22, 2024

“JUST THE TWO OF US”

THE STORY – Follows Blanche Renard, who meets Greg Lamoureux and believes he is the one. However, she soon finds herself caught up in a toxic relationship with a possessive and dangerous man.

THE CAST – Virginie Efira, Melvil Poupaud & Dominique Reymond

THE TEAM – Valérie Donzelli (Director/Writer), Audrey Diwan & Éric Reinhardt (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes


Blanche (Virginie Efira) lives a seemingly quiet life by the sea in Normandy, France. She teaches literature, enjoys family time with her twin sister Rose (also played by Efira), and has found a groove in her single routine. But, there is a note of melancholy in her. She imagines more for herself. Out of the impulse to explore romantic possibilities, she agrees to attend a beach party one evening, where her sister promises “the perfect match” will be waiting. But, director Valérie Donzelli’s psychological drama “Just the Two of Us” delivers a match far from ideal. In the film’s curious first scene, Blanche hints to a lawyer about a painful experience, which sets a wary tone for the story. Every scene beyond this introduction is tinged with unease, and with that comes the hunch that whoever she meets at the beach party is probably not to be trusted. When Blanche runs into the outwardly sophisticated Grégoire (Melvil Poupaud), she falls for him. Their whirlwind brief encounter, glowing in red light and shot through sensory close-ups, soon unravels into dangerous territory.

Based on Éric Reinhardt’s 2014 novel “L’Amour et les forêts” (Love and Forests), “Just the Two of Us” tells a story of domestic abuse from Blanche’s day-to-day perspective, highlighting how quickly the dimensions of a relationship can change. What seems idyllic on paper — marriage, children, a new home — are manipulated by Grégoire to exert his pathological obsession and control over her. His job relocation to a rural region across the country, far away from Blanche’s tight-knit seaside family, is by relentless design. Their secluded new residence starts to feel less like a home and more like a structured set framed by false pretenses and artificiality. Eventually, the environment becomes so toxic and suffocating that Blanche needs fresh air. She finds a calm place of refuge in a casual hookup. But, one evening, she arrives home late. Grégoire suspects an affair and spends countless nights terrorizing her for the truth until she breaks.

Many films that explore subjects of domestic abuse treat the husband’s disturbing intentions as an unexpected twist to shock the female protagonist. Instead, “Just the Two of Us” focuses on how Grégoire’s varying degrees of control — such as restricting Blanche’s social life, disrupting her with several phone calls, and tracking her work commute down to the minute — are observed from Blanche’s perspective. With sensitivity, the film delves into the disintegration and rebuilding of this woman’s self-esteem. Her vulnerability in opening up to Grégoire, her fear of not being loved, and her shame in asking for help are devastating to watch.

Donzelli’s perceptive direction immerses you into Blanche’s frame of mind, and she has a sensory approach that conveys what the abusive relationship looks and feels like. Her direction also occasionally observes the protagonist from a distance, which works thematically. One moment shows Blanche, Grégoire, and their children in the kitchen; the scene is shot from afar, as though the walls are closing in on Blanche. This moment powerfully elicits the feeling of an out-of-body experience and echoes how isolated she is while trying to find a way out. Such is the reality for many women in similar situations, who have become so manipulated that it is difficult for them to observe their circumstances from the outside looking in (“I was such a prisoner, I didn’t realize the door was ajar”).

The overall use of space and setting in the film also helps to establish a consistent tone. Gaëlle Usandivaras’s production design and Laurent Tangy’s cinematography smartly distinguish between the two worlds established in the story. The Normandy scenes with Blanche’s family evoke a breeziness and incorporate a lot of natural lighting, whereas the country house is moodier with darker colors and conjures a sense of danger between the walls. Also, house details such as Grégoire and Blanche’s bedroom having curtains to partition the space (instead of doors and locks) speak to his lack of boundaries and robbing her of privacy.

“Just the Two of Us” builds on its strong foundation with the writing. The 2024 César Award-winning screenplay from Donzelli and Audrey Diwan has a compact structure and rarely retreats from it, except when leaning into some convoluted tropes with the depiction of Grégoire’s character. The writing covers familiar ground in the film, from the heightened whirlwind romance to the insatiable possessiveness. What stands out is how Blanche’s perspective and agency are embraced. This is her story, and one becomes fully attuned to the distortion of her world in real time. From the beginning, the screenplay establishes a strong focus on her emotions, which makes any changes in her expressions or inflections all the more noticeable. The writing explores how Blanche pushes through her feelings to adapt to her surroundings. This includes characters outside the home that are neatly explored, particularly women on the outskirts of Blanche’s life. Whether the fellow teachers at her new school, the roommate who keeps her company in a medical setting, or the lawyer whose scenes provide a framework for the story, acts of female solidarity come through.

Virginie Efira’s magnificent performance as Blanche rests at the core of this film. Her delicate mix of determination and vulnerability breaks your heart and puts it back together again. The film shines through Efira’s commitment and understanding of her character. From facial expressions and tonal shifts to alterations in movement and physicality, Efira conveys a portrait of abuse that is both front-facing and invisible. Blanche’s hesitancy of not expressing her true thoughts speaks to a bigger fear of not being loved, and you can feel her modes of communication start to break down as she withdraws. The story also builds tension through Efira’s strong chemistry with Melvil Poupaud. Together, the actors navigate a range of emotions that fluctuate in intensity depending on the scene. Poupaud’s performance is a ticking time bomb that ultimately detonates. He has a rigidness to his demeanor and a strain in his attitude that immediately puts up red flags. Poupaud can be inviting one moment, as he conveys in the first act, and terrifying the next. That sentiment extends to the overall experience of watching the film.

The emotional resonance in “Just the Two of Us” rests on the incredible subtleties of Virginie Efira’s acting and the layered characterization of Blanche, which gives her a strong foundation to work with. Grounded in the performances, immersive in the storytelling, and concise in the screenplay, “Just the Two of Us” stands out as a visceral domestic thriller.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Virginie Efira's introspective performance grounds and centers this subtle character study of a woman in an abusive relationship.

THE BAD - The screenplay occasionally leans into genre tropes that undermine the nuance.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>Virginie Efira's introspective performance grounds and centers this subtle character study of a woman in an abusive relationship.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The screenplay occasionally leans into genre tropes that undermine the nuance.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"JUST THE TWO OF US"