Both Sides Of The Blade


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche under Claire Denis’s direction in Both Sides of the Blade (aka Fire)
"Although this film has no body count, it carries with it all the danger of an erotic thriller." | Photo: Courtesy of Curiosa Films. An IFC Films release.

You don't need a double edge to cut the atmosphere of Claire Denis' Both Sides Of The Blade like a knife. Sometimes the air of this intelligent love triangle drama feels thick with lust, while at others there's a fog of barely suppressed fury or a miasma of doubt, often emphasised by the tight, interior framing from cinematographer Eric Gautier.

It's surely no accident that the film's opening moments, showing married couple Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) sharing holiday moments together in sun-dappled waves against a backdrop of almost syrupy scoring feels just a little bit too "perfect". Once the pair of them are back on home turf, Denis and her co-writer Christine Angot - who previously collaborated on Let The Sunshine In and who are adapting Angot's Un tournant de la Vie (A Turning Point In Life) here, allow elements of their lives together emerge, while also retaining a deliberate air of mystery. Although this film has no body count, it carries with it all the danger of an erotic thriller.

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Sara is a spoken radio DJ who we seen conducting hard news interviews at moments through the film, while Jean's past seems less ordered, involving a stint as a rugby player halted by injury and a spell in jail for reasons unknown, leaving his mixed heritage son Marcus (Issa Perica) estranged as a byproduct and living with Jean's mum (veteran star Bulle Ogier), while threatening to go off the rails himself. This sort of family dysfunction might have been used as the main driver for other movies, but here it instead forms a tense backdrop that adds to the film's emotional complexity.

There's something just a little bit needy in the interactions between Sara and Jean, not in just in the lustful sense - although there's plenty of eroticism to be found at certain moments in Denis' film, which doesn't shy away from showing middle-aged people are more than able to have full sex lives - but also in the sense of each longing for a specific reaction from the other. It's easy to believe they're a couple of long-standing, with both Binoche and Lindon doing the physical work beyond what they say to make us see, without being told, a lot of what they see in each other. Jean is not entirely unemotionally available but also not fully delivering what Sara needs, or at least, wants - their conversations often revolving around assumption of rather than confirmation of attitude.

So when Sara spots the man she was with when she met Jean, Francois (Grégoire Colin), by chance as she goes to work, it comes as a surprise to us as well as her that the emotion affects her physically. Francois soon walks back into Jean's life too, offering him a job opportunity that's hard to pass up.

Denis and Angot hold the relationships in enviable balance. To begin with, it could almost be Jean who is having an affair with Francois, as he stays out late and seems to be withholding details from Sara. She too, is feeling the stir of old desire but this is a film that steps away from easy sentiment regarding adultery, to show Sara's actions less as an act of betrayal than a determination to explore something before it passes by. Francois' motives are also left opaque, so that it's not clear if there is clear intent on his part to try to upset the pair's relationship or simply to fulfil his own internal longing.

There's a sincerity to the central characters that proves compelling. Sara may be trying two lives on for size simultaneously but she doesn't feel fake in either pair of shoes. When she talks about love, no matter who is the object, she believes it. Jean, too, is unafraid of commitment, whether it's a return to the old acquaintanceship with Francois or his attempts, however clumsy, to reconnect with his son. Marcus, too, is given his own small but significant arc, as we see him, like Sara, considering what path he wants to take, and Perica's rapport with Ogier is also well-worked so that the gran and grandchild relationship aso feels fully lived in. Francois is the odd one out, full of ambiguity, he could be offering freedom or simply a trap, and he never quite attains the emotional complexity of the others. This is a small niggle in an otherwise heady brew as Denis and Angot let Jean and Sara wrestle out their emotions, refusing to judge the pair's motivations or actions as the film moves towards a conclusion that proves unexpected and, even more surprisingly considering what happens, unexpectedly optimistic.

Reviewed on: 09 Jun 2022
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Both Sides Of The Blade packshot
Sara has been in a stable, loving relationship with Jean for years. But then a man from their past reappears and, without warning, an old passion reignites.
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Director: Claire Denis

Writer: Christine Angot, Claire Denis

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, Grégoire Colin, Issa Perica, Bulle Ogier, Mati Diop, Hana

Year: 2021

Runtime: 116 minutes

Country: rance

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