L’Amour et les forêts, presented at the Cannes Film Festival 2023, directed by Valérie Donzelli and co-written with Audrey Diwan, is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Eric Reinhardt. In this feature-length film devoted to the heavy theme of domestic violence, the director traces the story of the love affair between Blanche (played by Virginie Efira) and her husband Grégoire (Melvil Poupaud), from its idyllic beginnings to its tragic break-up, exploring the stages of this long descent into hell. 

The wheels of dominance

The film differs from Eric Reinhardt’s book in that the director has chosen to tell the story from Blanche’s perspective. This allows him to explore the whole mechanics of the power struggle within a couple from the perspective of the victim, and to understand how Blanche gradually finds herself trapped within her own relationship. In order to achieve this, the film is cleverly divided into two types of sequences, alternating among scenes between Blanche and her lawyer who tries to reconstruct the abusive relationship chronologically, with flashbacks from these scenes. 

In recounting the mechanics of Grégoire’s hold over his wife, Valérie Donzelli presents a system which is common to many couples. In fact, she drew on real women’s testimonies to best portray this psychological hold on the victim and to describe the continuum of violence to which it leads. 

Grégroire’s hold-over Blanche develops gradually and insidiously. His manipulative side is invisible at the start of their relationship. But after a few months, the mechanics gradually fell into place. It starts with bullying and derogatory comments that seem harmless, but they are the first signs of a toxic relationship. For example, Grégoire makes a negative comment about Blanche’s new haircut. Little by little, he begins to reveal his true colours, turning from a man in love into a manipulative, possessive and violent person. Everything goes quickly downhill after their wedding, when Grégoire pretends a job-related transfer to move to Metz, far from Blanche’s native Normandy, in order to move her away from her mother and sister. Her isolation then continues with the privation of her car, the control of her expenses and the limitation of her movements. Her only area of freedom becomes her teacher’s job, even though Grégoire controls her schedule and her every move, as well as harassing her on the phone all day long at school. Grégoire’s behaviour is also very guilt-inducing. Every time they fight, he manipulates his wife by reversing the roles and making himself the victim of the situation, to the point that Blanche doubts, questions herself and forgives him every time. In a scene with her lawyer, she asks Blanche to only stick to the description of the facts, without trying to justify (unconsciously or not) her ex-husband behaviour. Psychological violence is slowly getting accompanied by physical violence, leading to Blanche’s hospitalisation, physically and mentally exhausted.

All along the film, the director increasingly relies on shots that lend themselves to a film of anguish, so that viewers themselves feel trapped, anxious, waiting for Grégoire’s next attack.

Domestic violence in France

L’Amour et les forêts is not just the story of Blanche. It echoes the stories of 208,000 victims in France each year, also the story of the hundred women killed by their spouse or ex-spouse each year (113 in 2021)1

Domestic violence is violence committed by one of the spouses or ex-spouses on their partner. This domestic violence affects all social classes, socio-professional categories, sexualities, ages… Nevertheless, if this violence concerns all genders, the victims are mainly women and the aggressors men: 87% of the victims are women while 89% of the alleged attackers are men2.

The film touches on an important aspect of the subject of domestic violence, by addressing the different types of violence coexisting within the continuum of domestic violence. The site of the French administration identifies four different aspects of domestic violence: physical violence, psychological violence, sexual violence and economic violence. Blanche experiments with the entire spectrum.

However, domestic violence is still largely associated with physical violence alone, because it is the most visible. Even today, we generally equate a victim of domestic violence with the image of a battered woman, her face injured, her arm broken. More seriously, this is also reflected in the care of victims, since a single system cannot handle so many different cases. Thus, when filing a complaint, it is more difficult for victims to be believed when they denounce silent and invisible violence. French justice is also more suited to taking care of victims of physical violence, particularly during hospitalisation. Support is less suited to other types of violence, which require listening to victims to identify a case of domestic violence. In any case, the response of the French penal system is long, and a new obstacle course awaits victims who decide to file a complaint. In the film, Blanche’s lawyer warns her:

“I warn you, the road will be long. You will have to say things that will hurt. It’s a war.”

Less known, economic violence results in the control of the financial resources of the victim. In the film, Grégoire thus gradually deprives Blanche of her financial independence, by controlling to the penny each of her expenses. Although the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) includes economic violence in its definition of domestic violence. France, however, a state party to the Convention, does not define economic violence as such in its domestic law.

The necessary freedom of speech

Because it affects all categories of women, violence against women, and particularly domestic violence, long reduced to the sole private sphere, represents a major challenge for our society. Some positive progress should be noted, since the number of denunciations has increased since the beginning of the #MeToo movement, driven both by a context of limited freedom of speech as well as an improvement in the training of police officers and gendarmes concerning the reception of victims. Nevertheless, the silence around this violence remains characteristic of our society, as a reflection of that of the victims, reduced to silence by shame, isolation, or even fear. In 2021, less than a quarter of victims filed a complaint3. 

It is essential for this silence to be lifted, that the victims are heard, that everyone is made aware and to know how to listen and assist the victims. Indeed, as mentioned above, listening is crucial in cases where violence is invisible and therefore, more difficult to detect. A victim cannot get out of this situation alone. It is therefore urgent for spaces to be created where speech can be freed, such as in theatre. The seventh art has a role to play in freeing speech and raising awareness around domestic violence. Valérie Donzelli understood this and explains, about L’amour et les forêts:

“I wanted to make a film about free speech, and the reception of this speech by someone who can listen to it and receive it (…)”.

The author of the book, Eric Reinhardt, explains that “we needed an electroshock film which made sure that once the room was turned on, women decide to escape from the influence of their spouse and go on the offensive”.

Freedom of speech and raising awareness around domestic violence are particularly important for the younger generations. Several mechanisms are gradually being put in place, like the violence metre. This tool, designed in Latin America and taken up by the Paris City Hall and several feminist associations, is distributed in schools. It allows you to identify potential violence in your relationship. The scale is divided into three colours: green (the relationship is healthy), orange (there is violence) and red (the person is in danger).

If you are a witness or victim of domestic violence (in France), resources exist:

L’Amour et les forêts, directed by Valérie Donzelli, 2023, 105 minutes.

Translated by Gabriel Capitolo, Solange Meurier, Iman Seepersad and Léa Grandemange.

1 Numbers from Nous Toutes (2021) https://www.noustoutes.org/comprendre-les-chiffres/
2 Numbers from the French Ministry of the Interior (2021): https://www.interieur.gouv.fr/actualites/communiques/violences-conjugales-enregistrees-par-services-de-securite-en-2021
3 Victimisation survey by the French Ministry of the Interior (2021) https://mobile.interieur.gouv.fr/Interstats/L-enquete-GENESE

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