For much of Claire Denis’ slow-simmering, superbly acted melodrama Both Sides of the Blade, we find ourselves in a Parisian apartment that feels like a private paradise, an oasis of domestic tranquility and sexual fulfillment. Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) have been together for a decade and still can’t keep their hands off each other, from an early beach vacation until well after they return home. There are cuddles in the kitchen, smiles in the bedroom and long hugs on her balcony overlooking the city below, whose everyday fears – the story is set in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – seem to exist at a merciful distance.
Sara and Jean’s erotic bliss is so overwhelming – and such a poignant reminder of how genderless so many of our films are by comparison – that it feels a little too good to be true. This seems to be all the more the case some time later when their apartment has become an emotional battlefield and Denis, a master of form, practically remodels the walls around them in response. (Her key collaborators here are cinematographer Eric Gautier and editors Emmanuelle Pencalet, Sandie Bompar and Guy Lecorne.) The air is filled with suspicion; This beautiful balcony is sealed. The camera darts between the lovers’ angry, exhausted faces in a barrage of brutal cuts and chin-splitting close-ups, as if to literally convey the idea that something has broken between them.
Up until this point, their relationship felt like a near-perfect bond, forged in the face of imperfect circumstances. Years earlier, Jean served time in prison for an unspecified crime, and he’s struggled to find steady work ever since. His imprisonment also kept him away from Marcus (Issa Perica), his mixed-race son from a previous marriage, who is now 15 and lives in the suburbs with Jean’s mother, Nelly (great screen veteran Bulle Ogier).
But for the most part, Sara and Jean manage to live free from the disappointments of the past, at least until the past comes looking for them. It returns in the form of a wealthy entrepreneur, François (a suave Grégoire Colin), who used to be Jean’s colleague and Sara’s lover, and who seems keen on reviving those two roles. François’ intentions will be obvious enough for the audience, even if Sara and Jean try to convince themselves that their arrangement – Jean will scout rugby players for François’ sports talent agency – is purely professional. Jean can hardly refuse the work. For her part, Sara offers what she believes to be assurances (“I live with you sheJean, no need to worry”) and only manages to raise red flags.
You can probably already guess a lot of the rest. Sara and François meet again, and long suppressed memories and desires surface. Caught between desire and denial, Sara becomes the hypotenuse of a full-blown romantic triangle. She doesn’t succumb immediately. Denis, adapting a novel by Christine Angot (who also co-wrote the screenplay), injects unbearable tension into the plot and traps Sara in a bind best summed up by the title. (Speaking of indecisiveness, at one point Both Sides of the Blade was going to be released under a different English-language title, Fire. Its original French title, Avec Amour et Acharnement, translates to With Love and Inexorability.)
All of this may sound like unusually straight-forward, soapy material for Denis, a filmmaker known for her jagged, elliptical narratives and confrontational themes. But while Both Sides of the Blade unfolds more linearly than, say, her brutally transgressive sex-in-space odyssey High Life, it’s nonetheless born of the same searching, inquiring spirit. Looking at it, you can feel how Denis, with a kind of amorous playfulness, embraces the conventions of bourgeois French melodrama; She wants to rough them up, test their limits and bend them into challenging new configurations. (Her work here earned her the Director’s Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.)
There is a pivotal moment, in the midst of the argument, when Jean rages over seeing François kiss Sara on the lips. Sara defensively insists she backed down: “You saw a fragment of a movement,” she claims, an oddly appropriate choice of words. A Denis film can feel like a symphony of such fragments, and in Both Sides of the Blade the director is constantly isolating these gestures – a hand reaching across a mattress, a gaze that almost, but not quite, meets one connects others—as if she were trying to deconstruct but also maximize her emotional power. In an achingly tender scene, Sara hugs Jean in a moment of grief, and her words (“Mon amour, tu es mon amour”) become a refrain almost as musically as the haunting orchestrations of Denis’ regular composers, British band Tindersticks.
Your emotions will be aroused, but maybe your doubts too. Is there something real or concrete behind those whispered caresses, those open displays of affection, that smeared score? Sara’s shifting loyalties and increasingly volatile desires in the second half of the story suggest a complicated answer. Like a less fun version of Isabelle, the middle-aged single woman Binoche who starred in Denis’ 2018 comedy Let the Sunshine In is an avatar of romantic insecurity. And her coherence as a character is no small testament to Binoche, who once again inhabits emotions so extreme and contradictory that they become nonsensical in the hands of an inferior performer.
Lindon, who delivered his amazing work in last year’s Titane, proves his co-star’s equal in a whole other register. Jean is the opposite of Quicksilver, and his handsome, weatherbeaten face is an open book, or perhaps an open wound; one sees his stubborn pride, but also the chaste humility of someone who knows what it means to lose everything and is now desperately clinging to what he has left. You might also catch glimpses of sexy stranger Lindon, played with such effortless masculine cool in Friday Night, one of several Denis films conjured here by her rotating cast of actors. (Alongside Binoche, Lindon and Colin, the director’s previous collaborators include Mati Diop and Lola Créton, both of whom appear in brief roles.)
There’s an air of auteuristic forbearance in these choices, and also in some of the subplots that Denis cultivates to awkward but stimulating effect on the fringes of the story. Sara, a radio talk show host, often interviews writers and artists (calling out to Frantz Fanon) about racial and political issues that don’t seem to bother her much outside of her recording studio. Issues of justice and inequality come more prominently into Jean’s conversations with Marcus, who gets into trouble at school and tries to figure out his future. In these scenes we see a father’s clumsy but moving attempt to free his son from an overly deterministic understanding of race and class. We also feel Denis’ commitment to a larger issue of freedom, a concept that means different things to a black teenager, a white woman and an ex-con.
Does Denis productively complicate our understanding of her two leads, or does she implicitly attack the narcissism and privilege of their struggle and perhaps even the emotionally flamboyant genre to which they belong? I think she just refuses to draw simple narrative lines between Sara and Jean’s personal lives and the larger world they find themselves in. As the sight of characters repeatedly donning face masks reminds us, this world doesn’t politely fade into the background, even when uncomfortable desires arise and a home feels like new territory. Maybe life is a melodrama, this film suggests. Or maybe the melodrama is closer to life than we think.
“Both Sides of the Blade”
(In French with English subtitles)
Duration: 1 hour 56 minutes
To play: Begins July 8th at the Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-07-07/both-sides-of-the-blade-review-binoche-lindon ‘Both Sides of the Blade’ review: Sexy adult drama cuts deep