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 Both Sides of the Blade 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.
There’s a fantastic scene where the couple argues over whether or not Sara and François kissed at a party and whether or not Jean saw them do it. Jean insists he did; Sara insists he doesn’t understand what he saw, and she’s innocent. We saw the entire scene play out, so we know that she chose to get close enough to François to knock noses in a caress, but pulled away when he tried to turn it into more. Of course, she’s still pretty much already cheating, just as Julie’s evening of boundary pushing with Eivind in The Worst Person in the World was cheating as much (as they tried to claim it wasn’t). The deeper Sara gets into her renewed infatuation with François, the deeper the hypocrisy becomes.
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. This sort of character interests Denis; Binoche played an extreme version of teenager-at-forty-plus in Let the Sunshine In, a movie I hated (though our critic Elena Lazic loved it) because teenaged adults get frustrating after a while. Still, I think Denis gets the psychology behind them, even if sometimes their behaviour, especially in Both Sides of the Blades, strains believability. What has ex-con Jean been doing for the last ten years during which he’s been living with Sara, seemingly unemployed, and estranged from his son? The film never really answers these questions, because it gets in the way of the love triangle. Adult relationships are rarely devoid of practical considerations, which makes it all a bit too fantastical.
Both Sides of the Blade is also one of a small handful of films that has chosen to incorporate the ongoing pandemic into the film. Sara and Jean dutifully don poorly-fitting surgical masks (don’t get me started; this was filmed after August 2021 when even WHO had admitted COVID is airborne) but take them off as soon as they are near another human. What exactly do they think these masks are for?! Most egregiously, Jean’s mother takes off her mask as soon as she enters the pharmacy; the pharmacist (Mati Diop), actually wearing a respirator, takes it off so that they can talk. This scene immediately recalled a similar one in Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn — still the best film to acknowledge and incorporate the pandemic — in which a pair of elderly people take off their masks in line at a pharmacy to talk, only to be firmly told to put them back on by the staff. In Bad Luck Banging, poor mask use was a sign of moral failings; the same could be said in Both Sides of the Blade, but sadly, the film is as clueless about this as the characters.
An excerpt of this review of Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade was originally published on April 14 as part of our San Francisco International Film Festival coverage. The full review is now available for the film’s release.
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