Claire Denis’ smart, moody, superbly acted melodrama, Both Sides of the Blade, begins with a rapturous vacation interlude, with the central couple draped in one another’s arms in the sea as the sweet melodic notes of Tindersticks’ score wash over them. The scene is so gushingly romantic it’s almost kitsch. But Denis is a masterful director who always knows exactly what she’s doing. The ecstasy of the establishing scenes makes the raw, wrenching volatility of later developments, when the past cuts through like a knife to shatter the couple’s harmony, more powerful.
The film reunites Denis with co-writer Christine Angot and incandescent lead Juliette Binoche, her collaborators on Let the Sunshine In. But the talk-driven, intellectualized romantic comedy of that 2017 feature is quite distinct from the bracingly physical impact, the palpable sensuality and sorrow of this sophisticated new work, adapted from a novel by Angot. The intimate intensity here is almost painful to witness, thanks to Binoche and her magnetic co-stars Vincent Lindon and Grégoire Colin.
Both Sides of the Blade
A stealth heartbreaker.
Sara (Binoche) and Jean (Lindon) are ten years into a loving relationship, cohabiting in an airy apartment that looks out over the Paris rooftops. She hosts a current affairs show on Radio France Internationale, while he’s been slow finding his feet after a decade in prison for an undisclosed crime. But Jean is stable and supportive, even if he struggles to find the time and attention needed by his mother Nelly (beloved screen veteran Bulle Ogier) in the outer suburb of Vitry where he grew up. She has custody of Jean’s mixed-race son Marcus (Issa Perica) from a previous marriage. The 15-year-old is floundering at school, risking expulsion, and siphoning cash from Nelly’s bank card.
On her way into work one day, Sara experiences an emotional wallop when she sees her former partner François (Colin) on a motorcycle. They were living together when she first met François’ friend Jean, and the three have not been in contact since the relationships were reconfigured. Soon after that sighting, François approaches Jean, a former rugby player, about working with him as a talent scout at a new sports agency. Jean is wary but intrigued by the professional opportunity, though he remains evasive about the details with Sara, feeding her apprehension. “I was an ex-footballer, now I’m an ex-con,” he tells her, indicating how much he needs the job.
The constantly shifting interpersonal dynamics are conveyed with fluid modulation of tone by a director in full control of her material. Brooding notes creep into the score, and cinematographer Eric Gautier’s pristine widescreen compositions grow more jagged and agitated as communication between Sara and Jean begins to falter.
Sara wavers about attending the sports agency opening, nervous about encountering François again after so many years. When the former lovers do meet, the rapport between them is instantly rekindled, prompting a heated confrontation in which Jean threatens to walk.
On a strong streak after his fearless turn in Titane, Lindon is terrific in these scenes, Jean’s coiled anger spilling over into his impatience when dealing with Marcus. Elsewhere, the actor plays against his hyper-masculine physicality in a performance more notable for its tenderness.
Binoche is transfixing as Sara gets defensive, denying to Jean, and perhaps to herself, that transgressions are taking place, but effectively playing both sides as her refusal of François’ advances becomes less convincing and her desire takes control. The psychologically astute script always regards her with compassion, not judgment. The evidence that plays across her face of knowing she should pull back but being unable — or perhaps more simply unwilling — is quite affecting. Even her body language changes, becoming floaty and girlish around François.
The latter is less developed than the two principals, but longtime Denis collaborator Colin invests him with both charm and manipulative calculation, his claim on Sara untroubled by loyalty to Jean. François is destruction with a smile. Whether there’s an element of revenge in his pursuit of Sara is left ambiguous.
Meanwhile, the easy, tactile manner in which Sara and Jean previously navigated one another in their apartment — even after returning from the seaside they can’t keep their hands off each other — becomes cooler, more circumspect as a suspicious distance begins to separate them. Nevertheless, it’s a too-rare pleasure to see sex involving middle-aged bodies captured with such unselfconscious naturalness and grace.
Angot and Denis’ script is sparing with extraneous details, particularly about the characters’ pasts, even acknowledging the contemporary pandemic time frame in the most no-fuss, matter-of-fact way possible as Sara and Jean casually replace and remove their masks throughout.
This is a relatively straightforward film for Denis, without the complexity of Let the Sunshine In. But the writing and her laser-focused direction lay bare the characters’ feelings in haunting final scenes heightened by Gautier’s camera closing in on them with probing precision. The sense of love dissolving and lives thrown into chaos as a dormant past violently breaks through the surface is unexpectedly moving, all the more so because of the film’s rigorous rejection of sentimentality. Considering that it starts with images that toy knowingly with schmaltz, the heavy blow of the conclusion is quietly devastating.