Both Sides of the Blade Claire Denis Juliette Binoche

Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade is a fiery and dark romance

Juliette Binoche stars in the French filmmaker’s latest examination of love and desire.

Claire Denis’s latest film, Both Sides of the Blade, opens on Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) kissing as the sun reflecting off the water basks their bodies in warm light. There is no diegetic sound, just a vaguely threatening romantic score. The way they touch feels lived in, both insatiable and familiar. As they return home, a huge stack of mail is on the floor. The mundane doesn’t suit their love, even as they remain intimate and playful. Their love, which felt so strong and perfect, is fragile and on the brink of collapse. The open concept design of the apartment flanked by large windows only contributes to this uncertainty as the space feels more like a panopticon than a home. 

A wedge is driven between the seemingly happy couple as a figure from the past reappears in their lives. François (Grégoire Colin) is first spotted at a distance, getting onto a motorcycle with a woman in tow. Sara is paralyzed, dumbfounded; her knees are weak. It’s unclear if he also sees her, but he calls Jean, offering him a job within the week. At first, his presence is welcomed. Sara and François broke up over 10 years ago, and she’s been with Jean since. Jean has been in prison for undisclosed reasons and has struggled to find work. More goes unsaid than not in these early reunions.

Inspired by the moods and rhythms of film noir, on first impulse, it might be easy to see François as a kind of femme fatale. He promises the world and entangles himself in Jean and Sara’s lives. Yet he’s far more akin to a noir antihero like Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, whose ego leads to a pile of dead, innocent bodies. His cocksure way of navigating the world with no sense of responsibility for others leads to the downfall of those around him, collateral damage in his pursuit of pleasure and control. His violence thrives as it grows in the imagination of a lustful Sara. His presence becomes a catalyst for new conditions and patterns in her relationship with Jean, which was previously so comfortable and familiar. 

The love story examines the conditions that allow love to thrive and falter. There’s a moment deep in the film where a desperate, crying Binoche exclaims, “I have never been free.” What could it mean? She’s a woman with a great career and at least a couple of love affairs. Is it her desire that has trapped her in a cage? In many ways, the film feels like a companion to Binoche’s previous collaboration with Denis, Let the Sunshine In, a twisted rom-com about testing out different lovers, none of which quite fit. In some ways, both films tackle what it means to love and yearn as an older person, but both also speak to the overwhelming despair of loneliness and the destructive power of yearning.

Do desire and longing liberate or entrap us? The film reminds me of noirs like Raw Deal, movies about women who willingly throw away their life for a man. Both films even share similar, sweeping faux-romantic scores. The feminine-coded noirs were often about women who were intelligent and beautiful but couldn’t escape their overwhelming devotion to unworthy men. Unlike the glamorous, larger-than-life Femme Fatales, these men are almost purposefully flawed. They’re not evil or ambitious; they’re careless. The women are then led to ruin by their desires. When women fall for the wrong men, they’re pulled into murky ponds to be lost and forgotten. When men fall for the “bad” women, they go up in flames, a fiery relic of their passion.  

Much like this one, the poetry of those noir films is that characters act towards their own downfall. Binoche has no illusion that her explosive desire for her ex won’t tear her life apart, but she proceeds anyway. The heaviness of this forward momentum might grate on some audiences, the same ones who roll their eyes at horror characters who decide to split up when a killer’s on the loose. Yet, there’s no denying that a part of human nature is drawn toward self-destructive impulses. If it weren’t, no one would smoke or drink. We’d never fall for the wrong person or allow ourselves to be caught in dead-end careers.

What Denis understands is that part of this self-effacing desire is ecstatic. She shoots her sex scenes with that raw earthiness that captures the ways sex can liberate you from yourself. When the sex is good enough, it’s like losing a sense of self. You’re no longer conscious, just a myriad of sensations, a creature made of flesh and blood.

As a counterpoint to the love triangle, there’s a b-story involving Lindon’s Black son from a previous marriage. His ex-wife and her mother have returned to Martinique, and Marcus now lives with his grandmother. He tries to find himself, becoming more rebellious and independent. The experience of being Black in France is explored through radio interviews and Marcus’s struggles. Even though his father tries to be compassionate, it’s clear that despite his love for his child, he cannot see past his whiteness to engage with how his Black son may experience the world differently. This narrative offers an interesting contrast to the main storyline that indulges the whims of France’s bourgeois whites, permitting them flaws and impulses unavailable to much of the large population. Marcus wants to be free in a world that won’t allow him to be. How much heavier is his burden than Sara’s?

Both Sides of the Blade is not necessarily one of Denis’s best films and is arguably among her most conventional. Yet, in its unique rhythms and ecstatic emotions, it remains pointed; an examination of what it means to be torn apart by a desire to be free and the social, personal and cultural roadblocks that prevent us. ■

Both Sides of the Blade opens in Montreal theatres on Aug. 5.

Both Sides of the Blade, directed Claire Denis

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