Review: BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE, Moody, Sizzling Noir From Claire Denis
Directed by Claire Denis, the film contains visual/aural power and beauty, combined with blistering performances by Juliette Binoche and Vicent Lindon. It's damn near a masterpiece, in my book.
Shot during the pandemic, with her frequent collaborators, Claire Denis's moody chamber piece, Both Sides of the Blade, might be seen too wordy and conventional for the die-hard Denis acolytes who prefer her blissful visual filmmaking with colors and textures. But rest easy, because the film is nothing but. It contains more than enough visual/aural power and beauty, combined with blistering performances by Juliette Binoche and Vicent Lindon. It's a damn near masterpiece in my book.
Sara (Juliette Binoche) is a radio DJ, wading through the news the world in turmoil in between playing music. With people wearing masks in public places and on the streets places the film firmly in the now. She is with Jean (Vincent Lindon), a former rugby player and an ex-con, trying to rebuild his life. They are very much in love. They have a history together and that history involves François (Grégoire Colin), Sara's former lover, who resurfaces in their lives, shattering their relatively tranquil existence.
It is implied that something went down, Jean took the rap and went to jail and François disappeared. Sara chose Jean, stuck with him and supporting him financially while he is trying to get his life on track. He has a teenage son with his ex, whom he left for Sara and a doddering mom (played by Bulle Ogier) who has the custody of his son.
The mere mention of François brings back a tidal wave of emotions in Sara. Jean politely asks her if it's okay for her to see him and François work together again in a sport recruiting service venture. She, hoping to get a glimpse of her former lover and reignite their passion, says, "do what you think is best for you." It's the physical reaction of Sara that's telling. She trembles in private, thinking of her former love. Even mentioning his name takes her breath away.
While Jean constantly is absent to deal with his troubled son and with business, Sara and François slowly reconnect. She resists the temptation at first. Jean accuses of her cheating on him and they have emotionally charged arguments. This is not going to end well.
Colin, who has been playing objects of desires in Denis' films over the years, is appropriately charismatic. His sharp features may have dulled over the years, but his intense stares still holds enormous power and mystery. Does he really want Sara back? Or is he there to destroy Sara and Jean's happy lives as revenge?
Co-written by Christine Angot (Let the Sunshine In), Both Sides of the Blade treads somewhere Denis has not explored before, a domestic chamber piece mainly taking place indoors. It's a boiling teakettle that never spills over unlike the kitchen fire that is Bastards, nor nice cup of tea that is Friday Nights (both with Lindon, by the way).
Angot seems to be the anchor for Denis to put her feet firmly on the ground, giving Claire Denis films more realistic depiction of life, before the esteemed director again goes off to do a bigger, higher concept, English language productions like High Life and Stars at Noon. But by no means is Both Sides of the Blade lesser Denis.
Both Binoche and Lindon are on top of their games. Strong, mature yet vulnerable, they are regular people buckling under the pressure of so-called modern life, which seems to be going crazier by the minute. The moody score by Stuart Staples (of the Tindersticks) permeates every scene and keep the tensions high, and Eric Gautier's tight lensing adds to the emotional state of these tragic characters embroiled in love triangle.
It's also great to see all the familiar Denis collaborators' faces in bit parts: Lola Creton (Bastards) turns up as a wordless girlfriend of François who shoots dirty looks at Binoche, Alice Houri (Nette and Boni) as a kindhearted bureaucrat and Mati Diop (35 Shots of Rum) as a family friend of Jean's mom.
Both Sides of the Blade might be one of the few happier results (at least for cinephiles) the Covid-19 pandemic has produced and I am glad for it.
Both Sides of the Blade opens in theaters on Friday, July 8 via IFC Films.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com.