A seemingly blissful union rapidly crumbles in Valérie Donzelli’s Just the Two of Us, a domestic abuse-drama presented as a harrowing-if-simplified psychological thriller from which escape seems near-hopeless. It’s impossible for Virginie Efira and Melvil Poupaud to give a bad performance; this drama certainly doesn’t break the streak. Yet Donzelli and Audrey Diwan’s black-and-white, overworked script is missing the kind of nuance each lead exudes in their physicality as they navigate a suffocating relationship where the smallest action or word can unleash a monster.

As one might expect, the monster in this case is Grégoire (Poupaud), a suave charmer who first romances Rose (Virginie Efira, also playing Rose’s twin sister Blanche in a somewhat extraneous narrative gamble) at a party. Blinded by love, she excuses some warning signs: Grégoire leaving with no explanation after their first night together and a dig at his general distaste for bangs when she sports them. After an unexpected pregnancy, the two get married and jet off to the countryside, where Grégoire can conveniently have Rose all to himself and begin his carefully calculated progression of mental, emotional, and physical abuse. In these early sections, both Donzelli and cinematographer Laurent Tangy (Happening) sell the woozy, warm passion of new love with red-soaked frames, an aesthetic that gets starkly darker and more claustrophobic as Grégoire’s grasp tightens. There’s even a dash of Umbrellas of Cherbourg-style playfulness with an early musical interlude in which our leads articulate their emotions through song.

These initial lighter moments are pierced by a detached numbness through a present-day interview between Rose and a divorce lawyer (Dominique Reymond), hinting at the troubling abuse to come. Efira, who always exudes a full-bodied emotional tenor with her characters, sells both the intoxicating first blush of romance and nerve-wracking horror of being trapped inside a life you seemingly can’t escape. Working from Éric Reinhardt’s novel L’amour et les forêts, Donzelli and Diwan explore the playbook of abuse, including how Grégoire admits to his behavior before Rose has a chance to express her true feelings, over-apologizing and begging for forgiveness so he becomes a victim. “You can’t love me if you let me become a monster,” pleads the imposing, sniveling Grégoire. As his toxic tendrils ensnarl his spouse’s every waking moment––whether at her job as a teacher or during every “free” moment––Poupaud’s one-note menacing lacks some depth. As a viewer, one can sense where this is all going and the film devolves into a routine game of watching this house of cards collapse. 

If Just the Two of Us feels a bit familiar, it partly has to do with unfortunate timing: it premiered at the same Cannes in which Anatomy of a Fall took home the Palme d’Or. Justine Triet provided a more prickly, narratively murky portrait of a calamitous marriage––one in which the ugly, private lives of a couple were unspooled for public consumption, giving viewers more questions than answers. While Donzelli’s latest feature is a well-acted, stifling study of domestic violence, one wishes there was more to take away than a schematic lesson in the horrors of abuse.

Just the Two of Us opens on Friday, June 14.

Grade: C+

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