Virginie Efira and Melvil Poupaud star in Valerie Donzelli’s well-observed domestic abuse drama

Just The Two Of Us

Dir: Valérie Donzelli. France. 2023. 105mins

The connection between school teacher Blanche (Virginie Efira) and suave banker Grégoire (Melvil Poupaud) is instant and intense. Just a few dates into the relationship, he is jokingly introducing her to strangers as “his wife”. A pregnancy, marriage and a move, from her hometown in Normandy to the city of Metz in the northeast of France, all follow in quick succession. But once the momentum of their grand love affair slows, Grégoire starts to show another aspect of his personality – a controlling, coercive side. Poised, confident Blanche is gradually weakened and undermined. Adapted from Éric Reinhardt’s prize-winning novel ’L’Amour Et Les Forêts’, this is a solid and often uncomfortably tense domestic drama.

A solid and often uncomfortably tense domestic drama

Director Valerie Donzelli, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Audrey Diwan (The Happening), favours an unfussy and efficient directorial approach, the better to showcase the complexity and quality of the performances from Efira, Poupaud and an impressive supporting cast, with Romane Bohringer and Virginie Ledoyen as standouts. It is not a film that explores new territory, nor does it take a tricksy or gimmicky approach to storytelling. The closest it comes to a formal device is to have Blanche narrate her story to a third party, a lawyer played by Dominique Reymond, in scenes that punctuate the main body of the film. But in fact, this direct, clear-eyed approach works well, and there is something particularly chilling about its matter-of-fact stance. Efira and Poupaud will be a key selling point of a film that will likely strike a chord with female audiences.

Reeling from a recent break-up, Blanche was reluctant to go to a party with her twin sister Rose (Efira, wearing a wig). Once there, she lurks in a corner, hoping to disappear. But Grégoire sees her – and only her. Despite herself, Blanche is charmed. The filmmaking, however, strikes a note of caution: the score is reflective, a little circumspect. The crimson light that fills the frame could be an indication of passion. Or it could hint at danger. Rose is not convinced by her sister’s new love. Grégoire picks up on her bristling, suspicious glances and misses no opportunity to seed division subliminally between the sisters. “One twin always outperforms the other,” he states confidently, deciding that Blanche must have been prettier and more popular than her identical twin.

The first indication that something is amiss comes shortly after Blanche and Grégoire have moved to their new life in Metz following his work transfer. By chance, Blanche learns that Grégoire lied: he wasn’t transferred and actually requested the move, one that drives a wedge between Blanche and her sister and mother. The house – an airy, open plan mid-century building – takes on a different personality. The lack of doors means that there’s nowhere for Blanche to hide; the snaking staircase might have been designed expressly for lurking and eavesdropping. But, it becomes clear, even a house without interior doors can become a prison of sorts.

It’s a textbook pattern of psychological abuse: Grégoire isolates his wife, from friends, family, even from her children; he paints himself as a victim; meanwhile Blanche finds herself shouldering the culpability because it’s easier to do so than  face her husband’s tireless hectoring and cruelty. But then, in a moment of defiance, Blanche connects with a stranger on a hook-up site. The sex is freeing and uncomplicated, but it comes at a high cost. Marriage, Blanche belatedly realises, can be fatal if left untreated.

Production company: Rectangle Productions

International sales: Goodfellas

Producer: Alice Girard, Edouard Weil

Screenplay: Valérie Donzelli and Audrey Diwan from the novel ’L’Amour Et Les Forêts’ by Éric Reinhardt

Cinematography: Laurent Tangy

Production design: Gaëlle Usandivaras

Editing: Pauline Gaillard

Music: Gabriel Yared

Main cast: Virginie Efira, Melvil Poupaud, Dominique Reymond, Romane Bohringer, Virginie Ledoyen, Marie Rivière, Guang Huo, Laurence Côte, Bertrand Belin