By Erica Abeel
In a world riven by war and flirting with Armageddon, you’d be forgiven for wondering how the microcosmic hothouse of Both Sides of the Blade could command your attention. The answer: director Claire Denis’s artistry.
“I think filmmaking is sexy,” says celebrated French helmer Claire Denis, now in her 70th decade. “If a film is not sexy, it’s a little bit embarrassing, you know? A film that has no relation to sex, I don’t know what it is.”
Denis’s new work Both Sides of the Blade certainly confirms her view of the medium. Both Sides of the Blade probes in graphic detail a love triangle powered by female desire that explodes in emotional fireworks worthy of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The film was the sold-out opener of this year’s wildly popular Rendezvous with French Cinema that ran March 4 to 13 (curated by Film at Lincoln Center and co-organized with Unifrance) and snagged the Silver Bear at the Berlinale.
The bourgeois marital drama is of course a staple of French filmmaking. In a world riven by war and flirting with Armageddon, you’d be forgiven for wondering how the microcosmic hothouse of Both Sides of the Blade could command your attention. The answer: Denis’s artistry. Her films feel unique, artisanal, beholden to no commercial or career-path imperatives. They are indelible expressions of her own wayward spirit. Her 2018 High Life with Robert Pattinson was an outrageous science fiction journey to a black hole. 2002’s Trouble Every Day pairs cannibalism and lust. No surprise, then, that she puts her own transgressive spin on a middle-aged triangle heavy on sex, nudity, and the logic of the heart (or groin). The unfiltered turns of Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon (two Denis regulars) ignite the screen like electricity run amok.
Co-written with Christine Angot (the Gallic queen of autofiction), Both Sides of the Blade unfurls in full pandemic, with the characters casually donning and removing face masks. Apparently the film was an interim project — the “busy-work” of someone incapable of not working — created in locked-down Paris during delays that afflicted a “bigger” film, the now wrapped Stars at Noon. Denis has said Both Sides of the Blade pulled her out of a funk in spite of the intense shoot. “I think Juliette and Vincent were like the engine of this thing. A tank. And I was on the top of the tank with the cinematographer and we’re trying to follow them; their energy was really amazing.”
We first meet Sara (Binoche, ever gorgeous) and Jean (Lindon, appealingly gruff), a middle-aged couple, in an idyllic scene of the two frolicking in a turquoise sea. On the soundtrack, the insistent strings of UK alt group Tindersticks, a Denis fave. It’s a scene inflected with considerable irony because we know, if they don’t, that this can’t last.
A long single take of a dark tunnel returns the pair to Paris and an apartment aerie on rue d’Amsterdam overlooking les toits, the stuff of a Francophile fantasy. Here, too, they can’t take their hands off each other, even as the score turns noirish and ominous, telegraphing the tumult to come. The pad belongs to Sara, who works as a broadcaster at an NPR-type radio station. Some 10 years before she impulsively dumped her then-lover François to live with his friend Jean, a former rugby player who has done time in prison for mysterious reasons. Denied a credit card, Jean must borrow Sara’s to do the shopping – casually hinting at a fissure in the perfect veneer.
It’s disrupted when Sara becomes overwhelmed by a chance glimpse in the street of former partner François (Gregory Colin, another Denis regular). Paris must be the capital of chance encounters with former lovers. As Sara reflects at one point, “old loves never really die.” Tensions between her and Jean are ratcheted up after he reveals that François has asked him to work in a new agency for recruiting promising young athletes. The setup is almost comic in its courting of disaster. The couple spend a lot of time reassuring each other (and themselves) that Jean’s new career move – and François back in their lives — should present no problems. Lindon is especially fine in these moments, remaining impassive — and perhaps suspicious — as we see Binoche at her most ecstatic. Before you can say affaire d’amour, Sara and Francois are involved in love and kinks. “Here we go again,” Sara says to herself, “sleepless nights, getting wet,” the souffrance of being in love.
A subplot revolves around Jean’s mixed-race son with a Caribbean-based mother, who was raised by his grandmother (the beloved Bulle Ogier) in suburban Vitry while Jean was in prison. The material feels tossed off, and the son, perpetually sullen, is underwritten. François and his agenda also remain underdeveloped.
While recognizing these flaws, I was not bothered by them, such is the momentum generated by the dangerous game played by Sara navigating her double life. Denis brings the “female gaze” to the filming of her characters’ encounters, the camera practically canoodling in bed with them. You have to smile when filmmakers throw in gratuitous sex scenes and then they try to assert that they advance the plot or illuminate the characters. Denis shares no such cynicism. In Both Sides of the Blade these scenes are far from gratuitous, since it’s eros uncurbed that drives the plot.
Denis seems to be saying that Sara’s dual loves — and by extension female desire — overflow the narrow boundaries of the dyad that patriarchy has deemed the only viable form. The problem is not her, but conventional social norms. In keeping with Denis’s renegade spirit, the fact that these middle-aged lovers skew toward horny teenagers is never considered.
Denis has also taken the gamble of splitting the sympathy of the viewer, who will find it hard not to root for Jean — who’s struggling to rebuild his life with a new job and do right by a troubled son — while condemning Sara for betrayal. Yet Denis stands the notion of “betrayal” on its head by suggesting you can love two people at the same time. I won’t reveal how it all plays out except to say that while the credits roll Denis slyly inserts a denouement both comforting and wise.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her 2016 novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the ’50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, was recently published by Adelaide Books.
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