Both Sides of the Blade: too subtle to cut to the heart of its themes

Though it won Claire Denis the Silver Bear in Berlin earlier this year, this film is as frustrating as it is vivid, vibrant and well-acted.

15 September 2022

By Catherine Wheatley

Vincent Lindon as Jean in Both Sides of the Blade (2022)
Sight and Sound

Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade surely qualifies as a ‘late work’: now in her mid-seventies, the director has been making films since the 1980s, and this is her fifteenth. Adapted with Christine Angot from the author’s 2018 novel Un tournant de la vie, it plays in many ways like a greatest hits collection. Here are the rushing trains, neon-lit streets and Paris rooftops so familiar from No Fear, No Die (1990), I Can’t Sleep (1994) and 35 Shots of Rum (2008). Here, too, are the sexual tension and romantic ambivalence, the tactile scenes of wordless lovemaking as featured in Trouble Every Day (2001) and Vendredi Soir (2002). Simmering in the background is the political context of post-colonialism and global economics, key themes across all Denis’s work. And front and centre are some of Denis’s most significant collaborators: Vincent Lindon, Juliette Binoche and Grégoire Colin (who has now appeared in no fewer than six Denis films), comprising the three points of the love triangle that dominates the film’s narrative – which is set, of course, to the melancholy strains of regular collaborator Stuart Staples’ score.

One of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers working today, Denis took home the Grand Prix at Cannes this year for The Stars at Noon; Both Sides of the Blade won her the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival only three months earlier. But while all the elements are in place for the expected tour de force, there’s a mysterious lacuna in Both Sides of the Blade, as if the whole were somehow less than the sum of its parts. The film’s unfocused proposition is reflected in the distributors’ struggle to settle on an English title: Both Sides of the Blade is a line from Staples’ soundtrack and an apt metaphor for the excruciating scissions at the heart of the narrative, but the film has also gone by Fire, and the French title translates as ‘With Love and Fury’, a more fitting description of the film’s tonal shifts.

Lindon and Binoche play Jean and Sara, an apparently happy couple whose relationship was formed in somewhat complex circumstances. Both were in relationships when they first met: Jean with the mother of his taciturn son Marcus (Issa Perica, best known from Les Miserables, 2019), Sara with the mysterious François (Colin), who was also Jean’s business partner at the time. It’s never quite clear how the events preceding the film’s narrative played out, but at some point François disappeared, Jean went to jail, his ex-wife returned to her homeland of Martinique (leaving Jean’s mother to raise Marcus), and Sara and Jean fell in love. Now François is back, stirring both Jean’s abandoned ambitions and Sara’s anxious, needy desires.

Apart from a brief early glimpse, François does not appear on screen until around the movie’s mid-point; for the first half of the film he is a mere idea, a spectre that the couple themselves seem to have conjured from their own insecurities. Much of the action takes place in their well-appointed Paris apartment, and the film plays out like a chamber piece as DoP Éric Gauthier’s camera moves in close and the pair circle one another, worrying at their wounds in an attempt to gauge how deep they run. In the background of many of these scenes is an abstract painting of two figures, one pink, one blue, over which looms a livid purple splodge: it resembles a nuclear cloud. Trouble, it seems, is coming.

But the sinister hints that Denis drops – that Jean was François’s fall guy, that François has ulterior motives for returning – come to naught. François, when he finally emerges from the shadows, is a faintly ludicrous figure: clad in a football-manager-esque puffer coat and shirts that strain at the buttonholes, the once lithe, feline Colin is now puffy-faced and paunchy. François’s grand seduction of Sara is stalled by a tantrum when she refuses anal sex, and culminates in the bathetic image of him sulking on the toilet seat of their tiny hotel bathroom.

Meanwhile, Jean, set up as a tragic working-class hero in the mould of Jean Gabin, turns out to be a preening, emasculated figure, a white man who lectures his black son about race, and who spits the words “slut” and “bitch” at his faithless lover’s face. As for Sara, played by Binoche in her usually febrile register, she’s selfish, self-deceptive and utterly committed to her role as the victim, even as Jean tells her he’s seen the texts she’s been sending François. Her increasingly risible denials play out in front of that kitchen painting, but at some point it has been turned upside down. Now it looks for all the world like a clown face.

Is Both Sides of the Blade a deliberate skewering of its protagonists’ self-importance? It would certainly explain the film’s otherwise jarring interludes: interviews that Sara conducts as part of her job as a broadcaster. The global crises outlined in the film by real-life activists such as Lilian Thuram and Hind Darwich barely register with Sara or with us, so myopic is the focus on her romantic intrigues. But snarky satire is hardly Denis’s usual modus operandi, and the film seems sympathetic to Sara’s distress, which may be deluded but is also absolutely sincere. The exact events that have brought Sara and Jean to their current state of constant, feverish argument are unimportant: it’s the drama they love.

Binoche, Lindon and Colin play it straight, throwing themselves into their roles with ferocity. The chemistry between the three is remarkable, and there’s tremendous pleasure to be had just in watching them together on screen: the glances, the touches, the very breaths they share are almost palpable. They’re given able support from the great Bulle Ogier as Jean’s exasperated mother, as well as from Mati Diop and Lola Creton in small roles that will delight longstanding fans of Denis.

These performances can’t stop Both Sides of the Blade from being a puzzling, frustrating work, one that promises more than it delivers, or delivers something too subtle to fully grasp: “a fragment of something”, as Sara puts it; a piece of an unseen whole. But perhaps the Berlin jury’s verdict reflected the notion that even minor Denis is better than most contemporary filmmaking: for all its flaws, Both Sides of the Blade is still a vivid, vibrant contribution to an outstanding oeuvre.

► Both Sides of the Blade is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema now.

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