Love Movie

Just the Two of Us

Valérie Donzelli’s “Just the Two of Us” is reminiscent of the “women’s pictures” of the 1930s and ’40s, films like “Stella Dallas,” “Possessed,” “Kitty Foyle,” and “Letter from an Unknown Woman”. These were melodramas, told from the woman’s point of view, dealing with often tragic circumstances: exploitation, having children out of wedlock, man/money problems, and the struggles of being a woman in the world. The actresses who populated these films – Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford – provided catharsis for the audiences who flocked to see them. The plots were often heightened, but the emotions powering them were all too real. Melodramas, then and now, have been dismissed as “soapy” or shallow, but melodrama is often the best vehicle for serious social and even political commentary. “Just the Two of Us” is being marketed as a thriller. This is misleading. The film is an extremely effective melodrama, dealing with something many women experience: being married to a frightening man. “Just the Two of Us” is not clever, self-important, or stylistically overt. This is a story, well told.

Blanche (Virginie Efira), living in Normandy where she grew up, meets Grégoire (Melvil Poupaud) at a party. Sparks fly. Grégoire is charming and sweeps her off her feet. In the middle of such a pleasurable whirlwind, it is difficult to perceive that instant intimacy of this kind can be a huge red flag. Blanche’s twin sister Rose (also played by Efira) is concerned, but their mother has a more romantic sensibility and lives vicariously. Blanche has never been so happy. Before she has time to think about it, she and Grégoire have married, and he takes a job in a location far away from Normandy. It all seems exciting to Blanche. However, it doesn’t take long for Grégoire to display some rather troubling behavior.

Grégoire calls her at work constantly. He grills her on what she does when he’s not around. He insists they only need one car, forcing Blanche to take the bus to work (so he can more easily control her schedule). He is openly jealous of Blanche’s relationship with Rose. It irritates him that they are twins. There is a part of Blanche’s heart that will never be his, and it drives him insane. The couple eventually have two children, and Blanche wakes up one day, after years of what she considered just minor irritations, to realize she is trapped. She sees him for what he is now. And she is afraid.

Belgian-French actress Virginia Efira has quickly become one of the top dramatic actresses in France. The last couple of years have been especially amazing, with “Madeleine Collins,” “Revoir Paris” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” coming in quick succession. She won the César for “Revoir Paris” and has been nominated six other times. This took place in less than a decade, which is even more extraordinary when considering Efira’s start. A beautiful blonde, she was a weather forecaster and hosted TV game shows. Her first acting roles were in light comedies and romcoms, and nothing suggested the depth and sensitivity she would bring to the dramatic material. Paul Verhoeven saw it when he cast her as the rapist’s wife in “Elle”.

She is now in a dominant position. Smart directors know that the story, whatever it is, will take place mainly on her face. Her emotions are palpable, and it’s fascinating when she tries to suppress them, whether it’s happiness, sexuality, or sadness. She is always thinking; there’s always an internal motor running. The slightest shift in mood is reflected on her face. It’s a pleasing way to receive a story as an audience member because nothing is being handed to you. The story comes at you through the look in her eyes, the tightening of the jaw, the sudden bursting grin. It makes me think of Steven Spielberg saying his favorite thing in movies is watching a person think.

“Revoir Paris” told the story of a woman struggling with PTSD after surviving a terrorist attack. Efira’s sense of dislocation and dissociation is palpable. She can’t put her feelings into words, but Efira doesn’t need to. The same is true, even more so, in “Just the Two of Us,” where you watch a woman go from melting in her new lover’s arms to a diminished woman on high alert for any change in his mood. She practically shrinks in size as she tries to navigate the land mines set by her husband.

Donzelli tells the story simply and practically, for the most part, but the way she blurs out the background to sometimes extreme degrees is an apt choice. This puts all the focus on Blanche in the foreground. The rest of the world is indistinct, and the blurring is the stylistic rendering of trauma’s pinhole vision.

We’ve seen all this before, even the “stunt” of having the same actress play twin sisters. We’ve often seen scenes where women cringe as their violent husbands throw things or scream in their faces. But with Efira, the terror comes from somewhere so deep and authentic that it feels different than a Lifetime movie representing the same. If you’ve been in a situation where the strong man supposed to love you throws you across a room, then you know there’s nothing cliched about it, nothing “melodramatic” at all. It’s real, and it’s terrifying.

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