Claire Denis’ latest film explores one of her important themes: how desire in man-woman relationships is more complicated than we often assume.
French filmmaker Claire Denis, whom I consider one of our greatest living directors, likes to play around with genre from time to time. Her latest picture is called Both Sides of the Blade, and if you read the ad copy it’s being called a love triangle. Well, it’s like no triangle I’ve ever seen. In fact, her editing strategies and her masterful use of music make the film seem as if it’s going to turn into a scary suspense thriller at any moment.
The story starts with Sara and Jean, a middle aged couple blissfully in love, played by Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon. Denis carefully establishes their intimacy in the beginning sequence where they’re on vacation together. How satisfying it is to watch a director allowing her actors time to establish convincing, lived-in characters. This is the third time in a row that Binoche has starred in a Denis movie, and also Lindon’s third time working with her. Denis’ familiarity with her performers pays off with especially fine and nuanced work from these two.
Returning to Paris, trouble begins right away when Sara on her way to work happens to see a man (played by Grégoire Colin) on a motorcycle. Later we see her overwhelmed with emotion, out of breath, saying the man’s name, François, repeatedly in a tone that sounds more shocked than pleased. She tells Jean later that she saw François, and his reaction is muted. Gradually we learn that François is Sara’s ex, and also Jean’s former friend, whom neither of them has seen for ten years. A further element of mystery is introduced: Jean has finished serving ten years in prison, and is consequently having trouble finding work.
For Denis, a story never happens separately from society or politics or ideas. In this story, Sara is the host of a radio show in which she interviews various figures in progressive and anti-colonial circles. There’s no need for viewers to make too much of this—it’s another way of establishing characters in a full-bodied fictional world. But it’s also a reminder that there are many other things, and much worse problems, than the travails of personal relationships.
So, François offers Jean a job. He hesitates, but Sara says it’s fine. The private reactions, however, that we’ve seen her express when seeing François, contradict what she’s telling Jean. And thus we embark on what I never thought of as a triangle while watching, because of the peculiar nature of this story. François seems almost like a demonic figure, since we never get inside him like we’re allowed to get inside the two leads. Was he responsible in some way for Jean going to prison? What we do see quite vividly is that a duality is at play in Sara’s heart, a duality of which she herself is only vaguely aware.
The emotional agonies that Sara and Jean put themselves through as the film goes on are the fulfillment of all Denis’ suspense film clues. It’s especially brilliant in the case of Juliette Binoche, who takes us on a dark journey into some strange complications of desire. The film doesn’t answer all our plot questions. It does show how much deeper and more mysterious the relationships between women and men are than we usually care to acknowledge. Both Sides of the Blade presents, in its stylish way, that mystery.