Claire Denis’ “Both Sides of the Blade”


Claire Denis' "Both Sides of the Blade"

Photo: IFC Films

Grégoire Colin shows up early Both sides of the blade. We only catch a glimpse of his character François from afar. He stands on the sidewalk, puts a helmet on his girlfriend, then puts one on himself before the two set off together on his motorcycle. But from the way Sara (Juliette Binoche) and the alarmed strings react to the sight of him in the soundtrack, you’d think she’d just had a vision of her own death. She rushes into the building where she works as a radio show host – did he choose the location on purpose, knowing she would be passing by? — and dramatically clinging to the privacy of the elevator, muttering his name. When she mentions to her husband Jean (Vincent Lindon) that she has seen the man, she does so with such forced casualness that Jean can hardly bring himself to play along.

François soon calls out for Jean too, with talks of the two starting a new company together, an offer the unemployed ex-convict cannot and will not refuse. The way Sara and Jean dance around the topic of François coming back into their lives (“What do you think?” “Do what she do you think?”) has the unsettling vibe of ex-addicts making an unspoken agreement to break their sobriety. François is Sara’s ex and Jean’s former business partner, and in the first half of this wonderfully annoying drama from Claire Denis, he appears to be a character with almost demonic power who is two people old enough to know better than to lure into destructive patterns , who they thought would have collapsed when he left town a decade ago. However, when we finally see him up close, his Mephistophelic appeal immediately dissipates. Colin is one of Denis’ regular collaborators and has played the seductive object of desire for her before, but in Both sides of the bladethe more we see of him, the more he borders on the ridiculous – not the compelling force he first seemed to be, but an apology.

There’s something exquisitely adult about it Both sides of the blade, which works its way up into a series of agonizing fights between Jean and Sara, in which they talk and talk and injure themselves horribly without ever saying what they really mean. It’s not that the characters are acting grown-up – anything but real, despite the years and the chic Paris apartment they share and their respective paths at work. Jean, a former rugby player who has uncomfortably thrown himself into working as a sports agent because he was blowing out the fumes of his own sporting career, in particular seems half-hearted to play like a pro. When he yells at Marcus (Issa Perica), his black son who lives with his grandmother (Bulle Ogier) in Vitry, and spits out incoherent thoughts about racism and relegation mobility, we realize how poor his circumstances are from counseling. The film’s sophistication comes from its keen observations of its characters’ weaknesses, even as they deny these flaws in themselves and invoke them in everyone around them.

Lindon, as good as the grieving fire chief titanium, here’s a beguiling sad sack who resists feeling like a held spouse and maintains a semblance of busyness that serves largely as an excuse to quash calls from his mother and the son he’s neglecting . He is so relieved to be back at work that he puts off negotiating the financial arrangements between himself and François, despite all indications that he has good reason to want it in writing. Binoche, on the other hand, dives into Sara with a heady lack of dignity. Sara is so nervous of François that she comes to a party to see him and then cannot bring herself to go inside, instead calling and looking at him through the window. She acts like she and François are characters in an EL James novel – “Here we go again,” she murmurs to herself in the mirror in the middle of the night, “Love, fear, sleepless nights, the phone by my bed , gets wet” – but when we see them in bed together he’s hardly an irresistible Lothario, trying to have anal sex and, when denied, sitting on the toilet angrily in protest.

The melodrama of Sara’s reactions is all her own, as if she and Jean had always believed in the idea that they are two characters in a love triangle that is still waiting for a resolution. Both sides of the blade begins with the couple swimming in the sea while on vacation, cuddling with effortless intimacy. But there are already hairline cracks in their relationship, visible in the way Jean asks for Sara’s credit card and then feels emasculated and changes his mind, and in the unasked-for denials Sara utters from the moment she meets François discovered on the street. The couple’s industrial-style home looks airy and spacious at first glance, but as Jean and Sara start to tear their relationship apart, Denis frames the space like it’s maybe a meter wide. Both sides of the blade is not a film about two people being seduced into destruction, but about two people who can’t help but blow up their contentedly smug lives – the life they insist on is what they always wanted , despite the choices they make.

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