‘Declaration of War’ Director Valerie Donzelli Tackles Toxic Relations With Virginie Efira Starrer ‘Just the Two of Us’

Launching out of Cannes Premiere, Valerie Donzelli’s “Just the Two of Us” is a feverish psychological thriller about a woman brought deeper and deeper into a toxic relationship. And if Donzelli had always intended to make the project ever since reading the source novel back in 2014, the lockdowns of 2020 helped push certain elements to the front of her mind.  

“It’s really the story of a woman trapped under glass,” Donzelli tells Variety. “She’s confined with her husband, isolated and unable to see anyone, cut off from the world. I really wanted to explore how this hold makes you more and more disconnected from life.”

Written by Donzelli and Audrey Diwan, and starring Virginie Efira in a dual role as identical twins, – and produced by Rectangle Productions and sold by Goodfellas – this jangly tale of emotional abuse follows a woman separated from her family, moved to the other side of the country, and eventually isolated all the more by a husband who first seemed like Prince Charming, played by Melvil Poupaud.

Donzelli shot the first part of the film with 16mm stock and bathed the housebound sequences in otherworldly glows and shifting mood lights, creating a stark visual contrast between the main character’s carefree days in Normandy and her suffocated and delirious existence once moved away.

“The goal was emotional realism,” Donzelli explains. “I wanted the film to put you into [lead character] Blanche’s head, that we would feel the sensation that she feels, and not stick to a pure reality or be on the ground with the subject. I didn’t want to make a message movie, I wanted to make cinema. And that means visual experimentation.”

“All of the optical effects were done live on set,” she continues. “We shot with filters, we shot with distortion lenses, and with mirrors placed on-top of the lens. We left nothing for post-production, and that was very important, because I love to work with my hands. Even if I’m not personally pushing every button, I still see cinema like sculpture or painting, as something really artisanal.”

Of course, there was the challenge of Virigine Efira’s dual role – especially in the many scenes the sisters share on-screen. “From a directing point of view, I had no interest a kind of hyper-complicated war machine,” Donzelli says. “So I acted as I had two actresses. If I had real twins in front of me, I wouldn’t necessarily try to put them in the same shot all the time.”

“I even forgot the same actor played both roles,” she laughs. “When Virginie finished playing one she’d quickly go change costumes to play the other.  And I’d ask ‘Where is she? Where is Rose? What are we waiting for?’ And she’d scream back, ‘She’s getting ready!’”

With a darker tone and more kaleidoscopic visual style, “Just the Two of Us” marks a real change of pace for the filmmaker, who was happy to stretch out her wings. “I am 50 years old now, and this is is not a film I could have made at 30,” she says. “I think it required more film experience. I think the film really changed my way or working.”

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