• Reviewed from the 2022 Berlinale.

When we first see Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) in Both Sides of the Blade, the middle-aged couple are blissfully embracing in sunny vacation waters. All seems well in paradise, but their sensually tactile bond is not enough to prevent their ten-year relationship from combusting when they return home and a figure from the past comes knocking.

The plot of this moody drama of betrayal and longing, which French director Claire Denis co-wrote with Christine Angot (who also collaborated on her script for Let the Sunshine In, a more richly complex and joyful take on female desire and the elusiveness of lasting love) is not well fleshed out. But the film’s skeletal framework is just sturdy enough to allow intensity to build in its study of the emotional pull of the impossible, and its capacity to set fire to all around it – tumultuous terrain that Binoche, always fascinating to watch as an actress, embodies with lightning-rod physicality.

Francois (Gregoire Colin) is a former flame of Sara’s, and old friend of Jean’s. When Sara tired of Francois’s waywardness and threw in her lot with the steadier of the two, the men’s friendship ruptured. But now Francois is launching a new business venture, and wants Jean, who is out after a stint in prison, to start working for him again. It is not clear what the dodgy dealings were that landed Jean behind bars, but it’s another pointer that the comfortable existence he appears to share with Sara in their Paris apartment lacks solid ground. It adds, too, a real sense of danger to the deceptions boiling away: just how dirty are their methods in dealing with rivals?

The workings of economic precarity and power, and the stratification of society along racial lines, are themes that Denis has examined much more rigorously in her strongest work, such as her searing 2009 take on French colonialism in Africa, White Material. Scenes glancing over these ideas offer broad-stroke hints of the fuller texture the film might have had, if its more conventional love-triangle format did not hold centre-stage, and its theme of haunting by repressed ghosts was developed with more socio-political scope.

Jean butts heads with his Black, fifteen-year-old son Marcus (Issa Perica) over notions of identity and whether prejudicial employment barriers exist, admonishing him to aim higher than the vocational school he has set his sights on. Marcus is being raised by his grandmother (Bulle Ogier), since his mother has decamped to Martinique to raise a new child. There is a sense of a whole history of bad blood between this splintered family we have not been made privy to. 

At one point, Sara, a radio host, discusses a book on “white thinking” with its West Indian author on her show. Such moments feel awkwardly detached from the film’s main emotional thrust, even as they point to a France that has not been able to properly acknowledge, let alone deal with, its colonial legacy, and painful structural inequalities. A few medical masks in public settings mark this as the pandemic era, but the virus and its heightened tensions go otherwise unremarked.

We already sense trouble when Sara mentions to Jean that she initially saw Francois by chance – with a forced casualness that belies the breath-stopping, near-panic jolt of recognition that gripped her in the street. Conversations on mobile phones are warily observed through glass balcony doors. Just one illicit look, or memory that has not been buried carefully, risks burning what they have to the ground (the working title of the film was Fire, but was changed to echo a Tindersticks track composed especially.) “We’re already together,” says Francois to Sara as soon as their inevitable reunion transpires, claiming to be her real partner in a potent fantasy life of the mind, even though she is living with another. 

Desire here is both irresistible, and profoundly stupid. A pivotal scene in a hotel room adds an overdue, piquant twist of wry humour to the melodrama, as the charismatic Francois comes off narcissistically controlling in bed, and sulks like a child when he doesn’t get his way. It is a welcome touch of de-romanticisation from Denis that allows him, finally, to seem petulant and ridiculous, and steeped in the sheer banality of that brand of male toxicity that works like catnip on the commitment-phobic. It is easy to love a man, but not so easy to live with one.