Credit: Film at Lincoln Center
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Horizon Line

Just the Two of Us — Valérie Donzelli

June 13, 2024

A French drama exploring a complicated, ultimately toxic marriage told from the perspective of a desperate wife and mother, Valérie Donzelli’s Just the Two of Us demonstrates both a knack for synchronicity and truly abysmal timing in premiering at last year’s Cannes Film Festival only two days after Anatomy of a Fall. While the Justine Triet film used the framework of a murder trial to explore the unknowability of a long-term relationship, allowing its mysteries to gradually reveal themselves while remaining maddeningly opaque (and riding a surprise Palme d’Or victory to international acclaim and mainstream acceptance), Donzelli’s film takes a more straightforward approach. Just the Two of Us presents a bad romance in largely non-sensationalistic, incrementally escalating terms, as enervating for the audience as it is for the characters. Playing out over the course of nearly a decade, the film goes through the stages of a deteriorating marriage, tracking its characters from infatuation and falling into bed with one another to the increasingly cruel and manipulative efforts of a husband to keep his wife under his thumb. Just the Two of Us possesses many of the outlandish trappings and overheated qualities of a genre film, yet it seems to be building to an inflection point or sense of catharsis that never actually arrives, instead forcing the viewer to observe endless cycles of passive-aggressive sniping and its protagonist perpetually walking on eggshells. Nobody gets pushed out of a window in the film, but it probably couldn’t have hurt.  

Belgian actress Virginie Efira (who coincidentally worked with Triet in 2019’s Sibyl) stars as Blanche, a school teacher in her late 30s living on the northern coast of France, still licking her wounds following a recent breakup. Goaded into crawling out of her shell by her more self-assured twin sister Rose (also played by Efira in a casting stunt that never quite justifies itself), Blanche is dragged along to a party where she encounters Grégoire (One Fine Morning’s Melvil Poupaud), a past acquaintance whose attentiveness only just conceals an insatiable neediness. Grégoire sweeps Blanche off her feet. He takes a genuine interest in her passions and interests, recites poetry to her, and they hungrily make love (with him even bringing her coffee in bed the morning after their initial tryst). It’s not that Grégoire misrepresents himself as the perfect man only to later reveal more sinister overtones. Rather, his clinginess and naked devotion right out of the gate — he calls her immediately, introduces Blanche to strangers as his wife after only a handful of dates, and constantly dotes on her, all of which she finds disarming — can be credibly interpreted as emotional directness by someone on the rebound looking for someone who doesn’t play games. 

When Blanche and Grégoire become pregnant after only a few months together, it accelerates their timetable. A hasty marriage follows, along with uprooting themselves to the countryside, several hours away from Blanche’s entire emotional support system, after Grégoire is transferred to a different bank branch by his work. But the warning signs are impossible to miss, even as they’re couched in quotidian disagreements and microaggressions. A superstitious Grégoire initially insists that Blanche not share the news of her pregnancy with Rose until the second trimester and presents himself as being magnanimous by allowing her to bring her favorite piece of furniture to their new home (most everything else that belonged to her fails to make the move). After a post-pregnancy Blanche finds work at a new school, and with it a renewed sense of purpose, Grégoire cheerfully blurts out that he can’t fake being happy for his wife, although he’s self-aware enough to acknowledge that he feels terrible about his confusing feelings. And that job transfer that took Blanche away from Rose and the rest of her family? It may have been initiated at Grégoire’s behest, something he conveniently failed to mention to her. 

Adapted for the screen by Donzelli and Audrey Diwan (Happening) from the Éric Reinhardt novel L’Amour et les Forêts, Just the Two of Us takes on an increasingly ominous tone without ever quite spilling over into Sleeping with the Enemy territory. Grégoire’s possessiveness and low self-confidence present themselves as minor yet persistent irritants, like incessantly calling Blanche throughout the day just to check on her and leaving pouting yet accusatory voicemails when she fails to pick up, or sulking when she stays late at school and he has to pick up the children from daycare. For much of the film, the character is guilty, primarily, of being a colossal drag, extinguishing his wife’s inner light simply by demanding so much of her time and energy. Grégoire’s M.O. is to verbally lash out over absolutely nothing, followed at first by a contrite apology only to then twist the situation back into an attack on Blanche; in one instance, he even claims that her inability to call him out on his more monstrous qualities is an indication that she doesn’t truly love him. It’s classically abusive, rarely explored on screen, behavior, and the film isn’t unperceptive about the more insidious ways abuse can present itself without escalating to violence (although the film does eventually go there), including Grégoire monitoring Blanche’s credit card purchases, pooh-poohing visits with her family, and undermining her parenting of their two small children. Yet the film is entirely uninterested in Grégoire as anything other than a sucking wound of paranoia and insecurity — although Poupaud is classically handsome, the film tries to lay the groundwork for the character’s petit pénis energy by noting that he used to be fat — which reaches critical levels once he begins to (correctly, it turns out) suspect Blanche of infidelity. Any compulsion to understand the character begins and ends with Grégoire’s need to possess Blanche, as though he ceases to exist when he’s not obsessing over what his wife is up to. Not that he appears to be getting much out of the marriage himself, as every evening devolves into testy interrogations of her daily activities and attempts to bully confessions out of her.       

It’s uncommon for a film to dedicate this much attention to the psychological wear and tear of abuse as opposed to the more salacious and visible physical toll. Just the Two of Us acknowledges the unspoken stranglehold of trying to keep a family together and presenting a happy face to the world, and that one can’t exactly run to the police because their husband scrutinizes how much they spend filling up the car. Efira (who, of late, has cornered the market on sensual yet classy French arthouse films about professional women of a certain age) moves through the film’s second half like a cornered animal, recklessly seeking out validation or kindness in whatever form it might take, only to retreat to a loveless marriage where she’s grilled about her real and imagined indiscretions. Yet Donzelli’s approach, treating this all like a pot on the stove, perpetually simmering without ever reaching a boil, has its limitations. For all of its feints at moving into a darker place — the film’s framing device repeatedly finds Blanche recounting her story to a sympathetic attorney, which only further emphasizes the Anatomy of a Fall parallels — Just the Two of Us is far too content to merely simulate the inescapable, regularly frustrating rut of being in a relationship with a hyper-controlling schmuck. The behavior is recognizable and smartly-rendered while rarely being all that compelling.

DIRECTOR: Valérie Donzelli;  CAST: Virginie Efira, Melvil Poupaud, Dominique Reymond, Virginie Ledoyen;  DISTRIBUTOR: Music Box Films;  IN THEATERS: June 14;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 45 min.

Originally published as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2024.