When Blanche (Virginie Efira) and Gregoire (Melvil Poupaud) serendipitously meet at a summer house party, they fall into the kind of seemingly perfect love that you’d never believe was possible unless you had experienced it yourself. She’s a French literature teacher who has grown tired of waiting for her soulmate to arrive, and he’s the tall, handsome stranger who just so happens to be ready to discuss Camus and Molière for hours on end. They laugh at the same jokes, have earth-shattering sex, and create the kind of shared language that forms when a couple shares their most intimate experiences. It isn’t long before a summer of love leads to an engagement ring and a baby on the way.

The elegance with which “Just the Two of Us” director Valérie Donzelli shoots their whirlwind romance only makes it more jarring when, 20 minutes into the film, we see Blanche in a lawyer’s office recalling how it all went wrong. The film, co-written by Donzelli and Audrey Diwan and adapted from Eric Reinhardt’s novel “L’Amour et les Forêts,” proceeds to follow Blanche as she explains how her fairy tale turned into a nightmare.

Soon after the wedding and the birth of their first child, Gregoire insists on moving the new family out of the city. His stated reasoning is buying a bigger house that will allow them to raise children, but the new location conveniently keeps Blanche hours away from all of her friends and family. He then begins to bristle at her lengthy commute to work each day, and suggests that she abandon her job so that she can spend more time with him in the evenings. All of his requests are delivered with suave politeness, but they gradually isolate his wife from any support system that doesn’t involve him. Whenever Blanche raises practical objections to these decisions, she unleashes a torrent of paranoia and insecurity from her husband. Gregoire spirals out of control and expresses manufactured fear that he’s not good enough for her, and she always acquiesces in order to calm him down.

The turn of events should be very familiar to anyone who has experienced, or watched others experience, an abusive relationship. And while the plot unfolds with a tragic predictability, Donzelli nails the subtle nuances that make these marriages so hard to escape. Gregoire frequently offers tearful apologies for his behavior or changes the subject with romantic gestures, one of which prompts the couple to conceive a second child. In one chilling scene, he confronts Blanche in distress after hearing a radio report about spousal abuse that prompted him to recognize his own behavior. But rather than apologize, he turns the blame back on her for enabling his abuse and not “loving” him enough to intervene and stop him. And so the cycle begins again.

It isn’t long before Gregoire has effectively trapped Blanche by controlling all of her money, free time, and social circle. As the strings tighten around her, the film becomes an exploration of what marriage means to different people. Blanche is an idealist who, despite being well aware that her husband is abusing her, takes her vows of “good times and bad” too seriously to consider leaving. Gregoire also sees this, and takes advantage of her lofty views of the institution by seeing how far he can push her boundaries. To him, marriage is an endless free pass to do whatever you want to another human being who has already pledged their loyalty to you. His manipulative games muddy the emotional waters so much that she doesn’t begin to think of life outside Gregoire until her physical safety is endangered. Only then, with the help of her identical twin sister — the film’s title is a play on both the isolating nature of abusive marriages and the unique sibling bond that twins share — she begins to concoct an escape plan.

“Just the Two of Us” is a rare thriller whose setup is more compelling than its climax. Many of the most theoretically dramatic scenes are pedestrian in execution, and the film’s third act can’t match the first two once everyone has revealed their true colors. But the film’s ability to trace a hellish case of domestic abuse back to its blissful origins makes it well worth watching. The two leads radiate a natural chemistry, and Donzelli’s confidently long takes turn every subtle glance and gesture into another thread in Blanche and Gregoire’s complex tapestry. Even in its most perverse moments, “Just the Two of Us” unfolds like a series of nostalgic photos that an elderly couple might look back fondly on from early in their marriage. It’s a reminder that, no matter how picturesque a relationship might seem, you never truly know when an abuser is hiding in plain sight.

Grade: B-

A Music Box Films release, “Just the Two of Us” opens in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday, June 14.

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