Claire Denis’s Silver Bear Winner Both Sides of the Blade explores the lies we tell the people we love (and ourselves). It’s screening at the SF Film Festival this month before a release from IFC this summer.
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Both Sides of the Blade opens on a bright sunny day in a vacation spot where married couple Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) are swimming together in the sea. Jean holds Sara up in the water, and at one point, the camera goes underwater to show the couple’s hands clasped together, united as one. A wonderful sequence follows of them returning to their Paris apartment, opening the blinds together, sharing affection, and having sex. There’s a casual warmth to their routine that speaks of a couple who have been together for years and found a way to live unshakably in synchronicity.
That is, at least, until Sara spots her ex-lover François (Grégoir Colin) on a motorbike with his new paramour, and it sends her for a loop. In the elevator on her way to work afterward, director Claire Denis hangs on her hands, clasped around her torso, completely unmoored by just one passing glance of someone from a past life. When Sara returns home that day, Jean can immediately see that something is off. She says she’s fine, but her smiles look forced, and he goes on his guard. Lounging together on the couch, her head in his lap, she casually drops that she spotted François that day, and Lindon visibly stiffens while Binoche remains relaxed. Is she trying to provoke him? Is this the beginning of the end of their relationship? Jean is aware that both things are in play, even as Sara insists — and perhaps she doth protest too much — that this is not the case.
Things go downhill from there, and the film is an often thoughtful look at how we say we are doing or feeling one thing in a relationship, while simultaneously doing or feeling the opposite. For Sara, it’s pretending that you don’t harbor feelings for someone else while exploring them. For Jean, it’s playing the reliable domestic partner one moment, and lying about work the next — to say nothing of his teenage son Marcus (Issa Perica), who lives with Jean’s mother, and with whom Jean has a strained relationship. Much of what works in the film is down to Binoche’s and Lindon’s detailed and restrained performances and Denis’s exquisite rhythms — of camera movement, of cutting, of getting close and pulling back — when the plot regularly goes off the rails, especially at the end. What’s frustrating about Both Sides of the Blade is that these are three adults who refuse to behave like adults. Sometimes, that’s believable: who hasn’t turned temporarily teenaged with an infatuation? But the degree to which they lose all sense becomes hard to stomach.
Both Sides of the Blade screens at the SF Film Festival on April 23 in person. Tickets are available here. A full review will be published when the film is released this summer.
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