Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

When Claire Denis’s Let The Sunshine In was released in 2017 I found it surprisingly underwhelming, so my expectations for Both Sides of the Blade, her second film co-written with author Christine Angot, were low. However, I’m pleased to report that Denis’s latest film is a marked improvement although not without its longueurs.

This is the darker cousin to Sunshine. While the former was a tale of the blossoming of middle-aged romance, Blade is a bitter of a relationship’s disintegration. While Sunshine concerned tentative search of love in middle age, hopeful though fringed with disappointments, Blade is a bitter document of a romance that’s long been marred by blank communication and weariness. It’s based on an autobiographical novel by Angot, and although this lends the film a truthfulness it does mean the narrative lacks a strong structure.

Binoche plays Sara, a Parisienne radio presenter married to Jean (Vincent Linden, recently incredible in Titane), a former professional rugby player who had since served time in prison. The affection between Sara and Jean on holiday in the opening scenes soon dissipates when they return to the cold reality of their Parisian apartment. When Sara by chance encounters François (Grégoire Colin, Beau Travail, 23 rhums), an old flame, she is overwhelmed with emotion that’s heightened when Jean agrees to work for François in a new venture of a rugby talent scout.

Sara rekindles past desires with Francois in Both Sides of the Blade

Both Sides of the Blade is a slow-paced relationship drama in which François’s presence is the catalyst for a long-simmering but eventually explosive reaction between the Sara and Jean. Denis’s film doesn’t take sides, we see the situation equally from Sara and Jean’s perspectives (but interestingly, not François’s – he’s the outsider, distant and slightly unknowable). It’s clear from the start that this will be a slow-burn journey to its inevitable conclusion.

Perhaps that’s why the early scenes seem glacially paced, but rather than build tension Denis’s repetition unfortunately tested my patience; the early scenes either needed more variety and richness to define the couple’s claustrophobic relationship, or at least some judicious editing. It’s worth the wait, however, because once things get going it’s a strong chamber piece.

Vincent Lindon is superb as a reduced former alpha-male, inexpressive, bottling up his emotions, but damaged and fragile. In some ways its a similar performance to that in Titane where his quiet masculine tough-guy exterior masks pain and insecurity. Binoche is also excellent as the middle-aged woman frustrated by the cracks in her fragmenting marriage and overwhelmed by an unexpected flood of emotions towards François, or at least what the lingering memories of their past relationship meant to her.

Juliete Binoche as Sara in Both Sides of the Blade

As always, Denis foregrounds her main characters expression and inexpression, how they communicate and when they remain opaque. The central couple’s communication breakdown is central to their problems, Jean shutting down conversation with a casualy brusque reassurance or a kiss that’s more a closing punctuation mark to an unwelcome discussion than any expression of true affection. But Sara is equally inexpressive, displacing her true feelings and worries, masking them even from herself. But how many scenes do we really need of Jean telling Sara not to worry and being elusive and opaque, or of quietly Sara crying or trembling in solitude over the thought of Francois?

There’s a second plot thread concerning Jean’s son from his first marriage. The wayward teenager Marcus (Issa Perica) lives with Jean’s mother Nelly (Bulle Ogier) in her small flat, and Denis captures an understated affection between the two, despite Marcus’s rebellions and difficulties. It’s clear Jean wants the best for Marcus, offering distant fatherly advice while acutely conscious that he’s a poor role model for his son. This thread seems slightly superfluous to the main narrative, a distraction although not entirely unwelcome as the characters are interesting in their own right. For a moment it seems to be exploring the very current societal divide around identity politics and self-definition, but that topic is quickly dropped.

Filmed during Covid, much of the film was shot in the couple’s and the grandmother’s apartments, and this makes many of the scenes effectively claustrophobic without feeling like a play. There are a few scenes in public places such as the Paris metro so the film gets the chance to breathe, although ironically the actors and many of the extras wear face masks. The script was developed before the pandemic, but Denis weaves it into the script, the couple trapped in a bubble that further strains their relationship.

Vincent Lindon as Jean in Both Sides of the Blade, the balcony offers an escape from the claustrophobia of their brutalist apartment

The couple’s apartment was carefully chosen. Concrete, brutalist, cold, grey, imposing. Denis, of course, was a former cinematographer for Wim Wenders, and she retains an eye for composition, juxtaposing the widescreen aspect ratio with monolithic verticals. There’s impressive use of negative space in the compositions, and the framing often expresses underlying emotions. For example in a scene where Jean might be feeling vulnerable as he sits semi naked in the bedroom, the widescreen shot exposes his defencelessness and also an openness. Sara pokes her head through a barely ajar door to speak with him, a narrow vertical slot. Her dialogue projecting her own fears onto him, but the framing expresses a defensiveness that she’s trying to disguise.

As usual, Denis employs Tindersticks for the soundtrack, this time underpinned with a double bass drone and cellos. Making most use of the lower registers of a string orchestra, violins are relegated to soft high-pitched drones. It creates a strong melancholy mood.

There are a couple of bravura sequences, emotional high points. The first is when the couple attend a party that François is hosting, and the film’s perspective is strongly with Sara. The camera follows her, shaky, fast moving, expressing her heightened emotions and discomfort. It’s the only scene with a large number of people, the chaos is made to feel overwhelming – we all recall how disconcerting our first large gatherings were after the pandemic. But Sara’s also overwhelmed by her emotions towards François – she longs to see him, but is also terrified of what that encounter will do to her and the direction captures her panic perfectly.

The other highlight is the long-awaited nine-minute climactic fight between Sara and Jean. It’s a superb acting showcase, the dialogue is strong and the single-take camerawork masterly. Filmed entirely within the couple’s apartment, carefully choreographed as the couple move between rooms, it’s worth the very slow build-up that proceeded it. We needed to be grounded in the couple’s lives for this scene to be as effective.

Both Sides of the Blade isn’t Denis at her best, it’s a chamber piece perhaps stretched out for longer than its premise warrants, but it has some impressive sequencing and acting, and builds to an emotionally devastating conclusion. Although we might struggle to find much sympathy for the two main characters, it’s an often captivating character study of a strained and despairing relationship and is a welcome albeit minor addition to her impressive filmography.

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