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Efira Shines in “Just the Two of Us”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 14th, 2024

Just the Two of Us (Valérie Donzelli, 2023) 3½ out of 5 stars

There is truly not much that Belgian-French actress Virginie Efira cannot do. In movies such as Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, Rebecca Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children, and Alice Winocour’s Revoir Paris, all released in the last 3 years, she has demonstrated wide-ranging skill in a variety of very different roles. Now she stars in Just the Two of Us (“L’amour et les forêts” in the original French), the latest film from director Valérie Donzelli (Notre Dame), based on an eponymous book by Eric Reinhardt. It’s a challenging part in a difficult story about domestic control and abuse.

Efira here plays both lead character Blanche and her identical twin sister Rose. At the start, she is a thirtysomething French teacher living in Normandy, who loves her work. Rose is the more outgoing of the pair, who insists one night that Blanche join her at a party where, Rose is sure, the single Blanche will meet a man worthy of her. That, in fact, happens, though not through any intercession on Rose’s part. The guy just shows up and sweeps Blanche off her feet.

Virginie Efira in JUST THE TWO OF US ©Music Box Films

He is Grégoire Lamoureux (Melvil Poupaud, Jeanne du Barry), whose last name, the source of an initial chuckle, means “lover.” And that he surely is, seducing Blanche with sex and charm until she is prepared to do anything to be with him, even move away from her mother and sister to Metz, near Luxembourg. Unfortunately, what starts out as a lovely romance begins to sour once Grégoire has Blanche away from her support network.

They have two kids right off the bat, and after a while Blanche begins to lose her sense of self. She loved teaching, and so reluctantly Grégoire says little as she finds a job near their new home. It has become clear to the audience by this point, if not to Blanche, that Grégoire has controlling tendencies. He may even be something of a narcissistic sociopath.

l-r: Melvil Poupaud and Virginie Efira in JUST THE TWO OF US ©Music Box Films

Donzelli slowly builds tension, though the power of her drama is at times undercut by the lack of mystery about Grégoire’s character. It’s clear fairly early that he is bad news. Still, the director nevertheless manages to keep us engaged in Blanche’s plight, thanks in no small part to Efira’s magnificent performance.

Some of the most disturbing scenes center around their home life, with Grégoire constantly undermining Blanche with the children; he also manipulates things so that she is often exhausted at work. Poupaud has the requisite charisma and talent to incarnate a monster. But as Grégoire loses his own grip on the qualities that first drew Blanche to him, he becomes too much of a one-dimensional villain, which hurts the narrative.

l-r: Melvil Poupaud and Virginie Efira in JUST THE TWO OF US ©Music Box Films

Something that Donzelli—who co-wrote the script with Audrey Diwan (Happening)—does very well is set up a framing device that keeps us guessing as to final outcomes. We’re not sure why or to whom Blanche is telling her tale of woe; we only hear an offscreen woman’s voice. Is this a confession? Did she kill Grégoire after he finally turned violent?

These questions will be answered, as well as the big one about what happens to a bright, happy person who falls under the spell of a domineering soul. Blanche almost gets erased, but not quite. Efira makes sure her spirit returns, wounded but rising again.

Virginie Efira in JUST THE TWO OF US ©Music Box Films

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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