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VALÉRIE DONZELLI: JUST THE TWO OF US/L'AMOUR ET LES FORÊTS (2023) RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA AT LINCOLN CENTER

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MELVIL POUPAUD IN JUST THE TWO OF US

Husband from hell

Valérie Donzelli takes a new turn from lighter films she has acted in to putting the prolific and often charming Melvil Poupaud with the new "it" girl Virginie Efira in a dark tale of a woman's entrapment in a toxic and abusive marriage. It's an opportunity for both stars to do something new: Poupaud as a nightmarishly controlling and insanely jealous husband and Efira not only as his attractive victim Blanche but as her twin sister Rose who helps her finally escape. It's a tale that might have been interestingly treated by Douglas Sirk, or more colorfully by Brian Di Palma. Or Hitchcock, in a new world more focused on women's rights (seemingly the main guide here) might have turned it into a suspense crime drama. Or, come to think of it, Chabrol woild have had a better solution back in the day: having the wife murder her husband, and their two young children just for spite.

This is a different kind of treatment, a more colorless and neutral one which we can only assume is meant to teach us how bad men can be. (Some of us already knew.) The film is conventionally told as a story in flashback of Blanche (Efira) recounting her marriage for the benefit of her Advocate (Dominique Reymond), the woman attorney who will defend Blanche when she sues Grégoire Lamoureux (Poupaud), her odious husband, for divorce. The Advocate intervenes from time to time in the narrative to urge Blanche just to tell it like it is, and assure her along the way that all she did was justified - or the best she could have done under the circumstances. There is no climax: the movie ends with lawyers and warring spouses finally walking into a courtroom.

Justine Triet's Anatomy of a Fall/Anatomie d'une chute, another 2023 French film and an Oscar nominee for Best Film, is a current example of how wildly entertaining a courtroom drama can be. But The Two of Us/L'Amour et les forêts eschews the courtroom and instead plunges us in the sheer torture of this bad marriage with no satisfying follow-up of justice done.

First there is the meet-cute, which itself eschews originality for a straightforward, no-prelims come-on, where Gregoire practically proposes to Blanche as he introduces himself at a party. One slow dance, some wet kissing, and it's a done deal. Nothing cute or imaginative about this. But he's charming, goodlooking, and works at a bank. She's a lycée French teacher who loves her work. She should have seen through the condescension of the man's too-fast approach and utter lack of imagination. But she gives in. His quotes from literature satisfy her. Later she gets named favorite French teacher by her lycée students, but she hasn't learned much from literature.

The switcheroo comes at 35 minutes when they've married. He abruptly moves them up to the northwest corner of France to Metz, and she learns shortly after from his boss that he was not transferred but asked to be transferred. It's the sticks, and it's far from sister Rose. And he's not too pleased by her finding a new teaching job as a substitute. That's only the beginning. They have two kids right away, a girl and boy. Seven years go by in which Grégoire becomes more and more controlling, imposing a joint account and sharply restricting Blanche's movements. He's horrified when a wise Rose gives Blanche her car so she can have some mobility.

This leads to the big moment of infidelity. Blanche goes to meet a man she has connected with online and has not met before who lives in a forest. This seems implausible. Who would do that? But it's perhaps a sign that at this point she is already suicidally desperate, and if she didn't, Éric Reinhardt's 2014 novel "L'Amour et les Forêts" on which all this is based would not have a title. In the event the man (Philippe Uchan) proves trustworthy and interested and skilled at archery, at which Blanche is an instant success. They also hit it off in bed, he washes her hair - big mistake, because it pokes holes in her alibi to Grégoire. From this one-day affair, Blanche's life becomes a nightmare.

The way in which Grégoire's repeated, torturous interrogations of Blanche are presented in the film is heavy-handed. (I have not read the popular book.) We get it: this man is a shit. So what? It seems uncertain why Poupaud took this role. Perhaps out of boredom? To serve the French branch of #MeToo that Catherine Deneuve joined more than 100 other Frenchwomen in entertainment, publishing and academic fields in signing a letter to denounce? French men, you have been served. But did you deserve this crude portrait?

Also by Donzelli I have reviewed Queen of Hearts (2009) and Declaration of War (2011), in which Donzelli also acts. Here she turns things over to French star of the moment Virginie Efira (who earned my love first in 2016 with the very funny Victoria, with Vincent Lacoste and Melvil Poupaud) and Poupaud again here (a favorite since Rohmer's great Conte d'Eté in 1996). Both have done better.

Speaking of Éric Rohmer, his star Marie Rivière plays the twins' mother, and we also see Virginie Ledoyen and Romaine Bohringer in the film. Would that it had been another film.

Just the Two of Us/L'Amour et les forêts ("Love and the forests"), 105 mins., debuted in the Premiere section at Cannes May 24, 2023 and opened in Paris that day. AlloCiné press rating 3.8 (76%), spectators 3.9 (78%). Screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York (Feb. 29-Mar. 10, 2024. Showtimes:
Sunday, March 3 at 6:15pm (Q&A with Valérie Donzelli)
Tuesday, March 5 at 9:15pm

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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