Saturday, March 02, 2024

French Rendez-Vous ’24: Just the Two of Us

Blanche Renard’s husband is so controlling, you have to wonder how he keeps his job. The constant calls and surprise visits must take time away from his banker work. Regardless, he definitely keeps her under his thumb, steadily depleting her resolve to resist. Of course, he was initially all charm as viewers see in Valerie Donzelli’s Just the Two of Us, which screens during this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Blanche’s identical twin Rose was a little skeptical when Gregoire Lamoureux swept her sister off her feet, but she mostly kept her doubts to herself. Of course, the courtship was appropriately romantic, but soon after their marriage, he relocates them to a northern provincial town, blaming an unwelcome transfer. The arrival of their young daughter distracts Renard, but around young Stella’s fifth birthday, she decides it is time to go back to work. Clearly, Lamoureux does not approve, but she still has enough will of her own to apply for and accept and teaching position.

From then on, things are different. Lamoureux obsesses over every perceived flaw and guilt trips her relentlessly. He calls her at work relentlessly (to such an extent her co-workers really should be suspecting something). The controlling and emotional abuse grows so severe, Blanche secretly arranges a date with a stranger via an app, as a desperate act of defiance and a reality check. Indeed, she confirms not all men are like Lamoureux. Unfortunately, Jerome Vierson is such a decent guy and attentive lover, Renard gives herself away.

Just the Two of Us
(no connection to Grover Washington Jr.) sounds like a conventional kitchen sink drama, but stylistically, it feels very different. Labeling it an “erotic thriller” is wildly misleading. However, cinematographer Laurent Tangy’s extremely intimate framing and washed-out color palette gives the present-day film a 1970s vibe. At times it almost resembles found footage. It is distracting for five minutes or so, but over time, the claustrophobic atmosphere creates a feeling of entrapped solidarity with Renard. Frankly, it is difficult to breathe during the stressful third act.

Frankly, Donzelli engages in some shameless manipulation, but she maintains such an elevated level of tension, she gets away with it. The celebrated cast also completely shed their famous images and submerge themselves into the domestic pressure cooker. Virginie Efira creates two very distinct personas as the Renard sisters. Rose is refreshingly forceful, whereas Blanche desperate descent is absolutely harrowing to witness.

Melvil Poupaud is suavely sinister as Lamoureux, but there attempt to delve below his menacing surface. Despite a sizable supporting cast, the film often feels like a two-hander. However, Philippe Uchan adds a critical humanizing element as Vierson and Dominique Remond is reassuringly calm and cerebral as the legal advocate coaching Renard for court, prompting the flashbacks viewers see in flashbacks.

Donzelli’s film is truly an uncomfortable viewing experience, in both good and bad ways. It will drive viewers to pull their hair out in frustration. Yet, that arguably reflects its success inspiring empathy for Renard. Recommended who value distinctive filmmaking over fun at the movies,
Just the Two of Us screens tomorrow (3/3) and Tuesday (3/5) as part of French Rendez-Vous ‘24.