More French than impeccable food, fiery politics, or chic clothing, Both Sides of the Blade dives headfirst into an ever-so-stormy love triangle.
Delicate performances from our leading trio strive to pull the story back from its pedestrian premise, and on the whole they succeed.
As in 2017’s Let The Sunshine, director Claire Denis collaborates with writer Christine Angot and actress Juliette Binoche.
The new film is based on Angot’s 2018 novel Un tournant de la vie. What is produced is a layered depiction of a relationship rocked by the sins of the past.
Binoche is Sara, a seemingly happy radio presenter who plunges herself into the choppy waters of love. Glimpsing an old flame, François (played by Grégoire Colin), on the street sets her on a path of no return.
Sara is living in a grey, brutally decorated penthouse overlooking the cabled beauty of Paris with Jean (played by Vincent Lindon), the man she left François for nine years ago.
Still with me?
To add to this chance encounter, François and Jean go into business together. This pushes Sara and François back into contact with predictably messy consequences.
Now I am no expert in love (far from it), but working with your partner’s ex-husband seems a bad idea. Hilarity ensues. I’m joking, of course. It’s all very sad and churning.
Binoche is irresistible as a woman who risks it all for love. Inconsistent, flawed, and multifaceted, she gives a four-course meal of a performance.
The blokes vying for her arm on either side are talented actors but lean into the good guy (Jean) versus bad guy (François) trope a little too hard, making the triangle seem too simply sketched. Though the biggest row between Lindon and Binoche is a painful explosion and a masterclass of raw talent.
Denis brings together a detailed tale of emotional turmoil.
Set during the height of the pandemic, life observed through screens is a motif that crops up again and again. It is expressed of course through the many masked characters, hiding beneath their paper covers, but it is also explored with more complexity though the use of phone calls for pivotal moments. An aesthetic obsession with reflective surfaces deepens the symbolism and highlights the psychological distances between the characters and their lack of ability to communicate effectively.
Eric Gautier’s framing of the action creates a world of small rooms and bottled emotions. Micro actions are focused on – the rhythmic drumming of the chest with a fist, a cigarette smoked with tense fingers, a hand run through the hair. Gautier picks out small moments that convey big things with a confident eye.
Sara is constantly peaking around doorways to pull communication out of the more monosyllabic Jean. The battle raged in miniature is nicely contrasted with the scenes of movement in cars and the metro. The city of lights swishing by in a blur.
Stuart Stapes of the band Tindersticks provides haunting vocals that crackle in the eponymous soundtrack. His unsettling score cultivates a tense atmosphere of oppression and suspicion that keeps us invested.
The sexual honesty is impressive. The depiction of sex as imperfect, personal, and crucial, binding the characters together in their most confusing configurations.
Some interesting subplots give depth to the film, such as one involving Jean’s son, Marcus (played by Issa Perica), that exposes the racism in French society.
But the meat of the action is in the repeated refrains of “je t’aime” and “mon amour”. One expects this single-mindedness when it comes to French cinema – maybe my heart is a frozen blueberry stuck in my chest? – but the overflowing emotion is agonising at times.
Despite the cavernous performances, music, and cinematography, the flagrant affair is pretty similar to Daisy Buchanan’s or Madame Bovary’s.
Binoche creates her own complex protagonist, making Both Sides of the Blade an interesting addition to the romance genre, but it’s no game-changer.