Both Sides of the Blade
Avec amour et acharnement

Both Sides of the Blade, the latest from French master Claire Denis (Chocolat, Trouble Every Day, White Material), is a maddeningly opaque romantic drama about a middle-aged couple whose seemingly deliberate inability to communicate keeps their passion alive. Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon play Sara and Jean, Parisian lovers who’ve been together for nearly a decade and are every bit as in love and hot for each other as when they first met.

We get a few clues as to the two main characters’ backstories. Jean is a former Rugby player who has spent time in prison for some sort of crime that may have also involved his friend and former business partner François (Grégoire Colin). Sara was François’s girlfriend before leaving him for Jean almost ten years ago, though it is evident that Sara still carries deep feelings for her ex when she happens to catch a glimpse of François on the street kissing a young woman. When Sara learns that Jean and François are partnering up again to form a sports agency, she is unsettled but supports the idea.

Denis is known for creating tension and mystery through character study. Part of the joy in her best pictures comes from the fact that she refuses to spell things out. Viewers are required to make a little effort and pick up on what’s going on in the minds of her characters through their behaviors. But this approach only works if those characters are compelling.  None of the folks in Both Sides of the Blade’s banal love triangle are remotely captivating. Sara and Jean are fragile, emotionally stunted individuals, and we never come to fully understand how they got that way. And François is on screen so little we don’t have time to gain any insight into him. This movie is Denis’s sixth collaboration with Grégoire Colin, so perhaps an extratextual sense of François is meant to carry over from past films. It is also the third Denis collaboration for the two leads (Lindon starred in Bastards and Friday Night; Binoche starred in Bright Sunshine In and High Life). Despite this history, the actors fail to bring much dimension to Denis’s and Christine Angot’s fragmented screenplay, which is based on Angot’s novel, Un tournant de la vie (2018).

The inscrutable nature of the characters frustrates rather than intrigues. Sara comes across as a shallow and immature woman. She is like a teenager in love with the idea of love and addicted to emotional drama. It’s hard to care about the turmoil she’s going through, as it all feels self-inflicted. She’s someone who makes life choices based on what her mind tells her but then follows her heart anyway. Binoche played a similar character in her first collaboration with Denis, Bright Sunshine In (also co-written by Angot).  When set in the buoyant context of that romantic comedy (or as close to a rom-com as the prickly Denis will ever come), the character’s naïveté and emotional rudderlessness are fascinating and endearing. Bright Sunshine In seems to make subtle judgments about its main character’s shortcomings, which somehow only make us empathize and relate to her all the more. In Both Sides of the Blade, however, it is we who end up judging Binoche’s character, while getting turned off by both of her unappealing romantic prospects.

Denis devotes a lot of screen time to matters that are only tangentially related to the core three-sided relationship drama. Jean ignores and then tries to connect with his mixed-race teenage son Marcus (Issa Perica), who has been living with Jean’s mother (Bulle Ogier) ever since Jean went to prison and Marcus’s mother moved back to Martinique. Sara hosts a radio program where she interviews people about race and politics—notably the real-life French author and former professional footballer Lilian Thuram, who briefly discusses his 2021 book, White Thinking. The 2020 ammonium nitrate explosion in Lebanon is also covered on her show, but its presence in this movie serves little purpose other than to ground us in the contemporary time period these characters exist in—like the COVID masks they wear in public. These secondary characters and the racial/political subtext feel so disconnected from the main storyline that it trivializes issues Denis clearly wants viewers to engage with. In many of her earlier pictures, Denis has explored the treatment of Africans and Arabs with nuance and depth. Here, these issues amount to annoying obligations that distract the characters from the oh soooo much more important business of l'amour.

Both Sides of the Blade was originally going to be released with the generic English language title, Fire. It escaped that fate and ended up with this far superior name, but I don’t think this picture is worthy of it. These characters may be full of secrets and desire, pain and confusion, but they don’t generate much interest or empathy. No matter which side Denis shows us, this is a very dull blade.

Twitter Capsule:
In a rare banal entry in the Clair Denis oeuvre, she reunites with writer Christine Angot and stars Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, and Grégoire Colin for an opaque look into the loves of three emotionally stunted middle-aged Parisians, trapped in a tedious love triangle.

Directed by Claire Denis
Produced by Olivier Delbosc

Screenplay by Christine Angot and Claire Denis
Based on the novel Un tournant de la vie by Christine Angot

With: Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, Grégoire Colin, Bulle Ogier, Issa Perica, Hana Magimel, and Mati Diop

Cinematography: Eric Gautier
Editing: Guy Lecorne, Sandie Bompar, and Emmanuelle Pencalet
Music: Stuart Staples

Runtime: 116 min
Release Date: 08 July 2022
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1