JUST THE TWO OF US – Review by Leslie Combemale

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While many people think of wine, cheese, and romance when they think of France, unfortunately it is also a country with 208,000 victims of domestic violence a year, and over a hundred of that number are killed by their spouse or ex-spouse each year. Nearly all of those victims, or 87%, are women. For women who survive and enter the French justice system, it’s a long, tough road. As the lawyer in director/co-writer Valérie Donzelli’s narrative Just the Two of Us says, “The road will be long. It’s a war.” The film, which is an adaptation of Eric Reinhardt’s novel L’Amour et Les Foréts, creates a portrait of one woman’s journey as she goes from experiencing new love to isolation to abuse at the hands of her husband.

Just the Two of Us is a sort of no bullshit, very French profile of one woman’s trauma that brings to mind that slick 90s US studio release Sleeping With the Enemy, which starred Julia Roberts. This new film features an actress who could be arguably labeled the Julia Roberts of France, Virginie Efira. Her character Blanche goes down the rabbit hole of self-doubt, fear, and shame many women suffering abuse go through, and being a French release, it’s not at all certain audiences will get the same kind of slick studio ending, or even whether she’ll survive.

Efira plays a duo role as twins Blanche and Rose, who live in joyful sisterhood near the beach in Normandy. Enter suave and charming banker Grégoire Lamoureux (Melvin Poupaud) to sweep Blanche off her feet and into his arms. Their first lover’s tryst is shot in deep reds that will have audiences wondering, “is it romance or is it danger?” They marry, and he whisks her far away to Metz, slowly removing her from all her family and friends. He calls her repeatedly at work. He tracks the amount of gas she uses. With their two children, he’s a delight, but in the privacy of their bedroom, he’s an emotional monster, slowly chipping away at her confidence, autonomy, and mental health.

The plot is revealed by going back and forth between Blanche retelling her trauma to a lawyer (Dominique Reymond) and her own flashbacks. There are co-stars who bring further weight and urgency to the story, including Virginie Ledoyen as Candice, an understanding hospital roommate, and Marie Rivière as Blanche’s mother. Still, there are times when the switches between flashbacks and explanation can be a bit confusing.

Donzelli interviewed many real life victims in her quest to create an accurate picture of Blanche’s trauma, and has mentioned often making films as a woman is inherently a political gesture. That perspective shows in the fearless and subjective way the lead character’s struggles are shown in terms of how they are filmed. The camera angles and the ways Efira is shot, as well as the protracted length of time she is in the frame are beautifully subjective to the character’s experience. Donzellii was also aided in creating a tight script by co-writer Audrey Diwan, the Feminist New Wave writer/director whose film Happening expanded the global discussion about abortion and female bodily autonomy.

Both Virginie Efira and Melvin Poupaud turn in impressive, magnetic performances. Even as viewers see the small moments of joy or peace Blanche snatches, often at great cost, Just the Two of Us is never less than a harrowing watch. We are witnesses to an oncoming disaster, whether it means her death, or the “war” she’ll have to fight to save herself and get free from her abuser.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.