Both Sides of the Blade

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Revered arthouse director Claire Denis starts Both Sides of the Blade with an almost subliminal reference to Jaws. A couple wade into the sea. The soundtrack growls ominously. But only for maybe half a second. Then it pivots spectacularly into something gooey, gentle and romantic. We see the faces of the couple. It’s Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon, looking ecstatically happy. They stare fondly into each other’s eyes. They touch and caress each other. They laugh. Later, in their room, they make love. Still later, back at their apartment in Paris, their holiday over, the first thing they do is make love again.

But that growl. Something is lurking.

We learn what it is after getting more glimpses of this couple’s life together. Sara (Binoche) works at a radio station, Jean is an ex rugby player who has done jail time for something never quite specified. They used to be in relationships with other people. He with the mother of his son, Marcus (Issa Perica), who was raised mostly by his mother (Bulle Ogier) while he was in jail. She with a guy called François (Grégoire Colin), who she catches a glimpse of one day in a car park and instantly has a wobble. Clutching herself around the waist she moans, “François”.

A strange love story takes off, with Sara caught between two men – the old lover and the current one, with things pushed to crisis point when Jean is offered a job by François and accepts it.

The Covid pandemic is in full spate and masks are everywhere. Rather than try and avoid them, Denis presses them into service, focusing repeatedly on the masks, drawing a comparison with something else that’s in the air, something potentially dangerous.

Soundtracks are often held up as being intrinsic to a film when they’re nothing of the sort, but the one to Both Sides of the Blade really is. It’s by Tindersticks, who’ve been working with Denis for aeons, and as well as setting the mood from the off, it sits there simmering and trembling all the way through, suggesting Sara’s frame of mind. It also provides the film’s title – which was going to be called Fire (as in “don’t play with” presumably) until Claire Denis heard the song th band had written for the closing credits. Suddenly, Both Sides of the Blade it was (Denis even prefers it to the French title, Avec Amour et AcharnementWith Love and Fury).

François and Sara
Happier? François and Sara

Don’t come to this film expecting something original in terms of plot. Instead it’s the acting that makes it worth the journey. Grégoire Colin hasn’t got much to do beyond play the big bad instigator. It’s between Binoche and Lindon that the sparks fly. As Jean’s emotional antenna start twitching and he starts to quiz Sara about her sudden coolness towards him – she was all over him only recently – her denials don’t quite ring true. They are strictly factual, whereas he’s after more emotion-driven responses.

This gap between the factual and emotional truth is what produces the fireworks, and the opportunity for spectacular acting by Lindon and Binoche. Lindon in particular is remarkable, and his ability to be tough and sensitive at the same time really stands him in good stead. As if to insulate Sara against charges of being just a silly woman, there’s a subplot about Jean’s son Marcus, and how he’s caught between two parent figures – grandma and dad – but it doesn’t amount to much and feels tokenistic.

Emotional landscapes are where Denis operates best, and she keeps the mood intense by shooting in tight spaces, in cars, small apartments, with the camera so often up in the faces of her… victims? Even so, though the Denis magic is clearly working, and the acting is off the scale, this is minor Denis. Nicely done but not earth shattering.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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