By Greg Carlson
Known in the original French as “Avec amour et acharnement” (“With Love and Fury” or “With Love and Relentlessness”), the first of two Claire Denis features released in 2022 swapped original English language title “Fire” for the more satisfying and effective “Both Sides of the Blade.” The latter name is taken from a song by longtime Denis collaborators Tindersticks, and its evocative lines suggesting the pain of being cut in two echo the film’s central love triangle. Following a February premiere at the Berlinale, where Denis received the Silver Bear for Best Director, the movie is currently available to stream in the United States via several major providers. It is well worth seeking out.
The second Denis film of 2022, Cannes Grand Prix-winner “Stars at Noon,” is currently in cinemas. Both movies are based on novels Denis adapted for the screen with writing partners. In the case of “Both Sides of the Blade,” the filmmaker worked with Christine Angot to prepare and reimagine Angot’s 2018 book “Un tournant de la vie” (“A Turning Point in Life”). The opening scenes of the movie bask in the warm ocean waters of a loving vacation idyll enjoyed by Sara (Juliette Binoche, making her third film with Denis) and Jean (Vincent Lindon, recently tremendous in “Titane”). They will shortly return to a chilly Paris and a series of unforeseen conflicts that challenge their union.
Denis, now 76 years old, rejected a producer’s plea for the on-camera events of “Both Sides of the Blade” to be free of masks. The director, however, insisted on grounding the action of the story in the midst of the pandemic. The eerie quiet and the dispiriting isolation intensify Sara’s reaction when she catches sight of ex-lover François (Grégoire Colin). Instantly, she is overcome with butterflies and long-buried feelings that will soon threaten the security of her relationship with Jean. Matters are further complicated when Jean – who was also friends with François years ago – announces that he intends to form a business partnership with Sara’s old flame.
Be it film, novel, poem, or song, the triangle is one of the most frequent tropes in storytelling. Denis is such a gifted moviemaker, though, that cliche is absent from the precise and specific moments inside her intelligently-constructed universe. Intriguing details, like Sara’s work as the host of a radio program or the reasons that sent Jean to prison, are deliberately unexplored and never used as central turning points in the narrative. For some viewers, the lack of greater context for these tantalizing ingredients will frustrate and/or contribute to a sense that the story is incomplete. Others will appreciate the way that Denis is able to keep us off balance and curious about where everything is going.
The central point of view belongs to Sara, but Jean receives equitable treatment. The movie’s primary subplot involves Jean’s estranged son Marcus (Issa Perica), a biracial teenager being raised outside Paris by Jean’s mother (Bulle Ogier). Jean’s post-incarceration inability or unwillingness to be present in his child’s life poses yet another of the film’s unanswered questions, but Denis finds ways to show how Jean’s absence is doing lasting, painful damage to Marcus. Both Sara and Jean lie to themselves and to others. Binoche, as brilliant as ever, draws us close to Sara even as we wonder at her disastrous, delirious choices.
September 24th 2023
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