We humans are basically sentient balls of chaos loosed onto one another. Every interaction is an equation of hormones, traumas, passions, and imperfect memories of all of them crashing into one another. And, yet, we keep trying. We collectively discover endless ways to f—k each other up, and the world in the process, but here we are. Wanting to care. Hoping to be cared for. Maybe, even, trying to love and be loved. If we were a logical species, well, who can say exactly what might become of the pangs and pains of love and loss. What we do have is the mayhem that is existence and the knowledge that we just have to keep seeking our pockets of comfort and sanity. It is all of this that feeds into Both Sides of the Blade (2022), the newest triumph from French master Claire Denis.
Both Sides of the Blade is principally concerned with Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon). The two are a never confirmed number of years into a fiery relationship. That relationship birthed in turn from a time when Sara was romantically linked with Jean’s friend and business partner François (Grégoire Colin). We join them in the last blissful moments of a seaside vacation, and as they return to Sara’s apartment in Paris. Jean is still bouncing back from a stint in prison while Sara works her job as a radio host and journalist. Add to the mix Jean’s troubled son Marcus (Issa Perica), who lives with Jean’s mother Nelly (Bulle Ogier), and their lives are quite complex. That all reaches warp speed when François reappears, asking Jean to get back in business together. Suddenly, the past isn’t so far away. It is a reckoning for Jean and Sara.
I properly discovered Denis during the early days of lockdown when I caught up with High Life (2018). I’ve devoured her work ever since. Both Sides of the Blade finds her deep in her groove, aiming her prodigious ability to mine brutality from the ordinary. Yes, Sara and Jean have specifics painted into their backstories, but you can mix and match those issues to stand in for any number of lingering histories to relate with. The script, which Denis wrote with Christine Angot, possesses a near-supernatural level of human observation. There’s nothing in the screenplay that moves beyond searingly observed glimpses of a fragile relationship. Dear reader, you may not have a literal François dangling over your relationship, but it would be folly for any one of us to pretend there was not something roiling about. Denis and Angot simply isolate and amplify the painful bits.
Behind the camera, Denis has always excelled at identifying the rhythm and atmosphere most suited to the story at hand. For Both Sides of the Blade, she somehow discovers a way to make the most intimate moments between uneasy lovers glisten with voyeuristic intent. Faces and eyes loom large over every scene and sequence. Denis ensures we are constantly aware of who is watching who, and whether that gaze projects in both directions. Take, for example, an early scene right after Jean informs Sara he’s spoken to François. He goes into the bathroom to “clean up” and after a short delay, Sara follows. Denis shoots the scene through a series of shot-reverse shots. Simple. Clean. In a lesser director’s hands, it would be dull. Here, Denis finds small variations in each shot that land like seismic shocks. Sara leaning on the door, adjusting how open it is as she navigates the conversation. Jean changing his posture with each sentence. Each watching each other, boring holes in consciousnesses.
Binoche and Lindon only magnify the whole experience. Both performers are experts in turning restraint into breathless tension. They are pristinely matched here. If Burton and Taylor are the ur-text of frenzied battle, Binoche and Lindon are their equal in quietly devastating warfare. Each conversation along the dissolution of their happiness is played with tactical grace. Both embody their characters with compassion that has fractured into merciless self-pity and rage. We meet them waist-deep in a stunning ocean as they frolic and kiss, but we spend most of the movie watching their viciously repressed fears consume them. I watch a lot of horror and love the genre endlessly. I would also be hard-pressed to name a film in that genre with more carnage-per-minute than what Binoche and Lindon embody here. Neither is prepared to take metaphorical prisoners and so they each wreak devastation on the other.
Watching Both Sides of the Blade, I couldn’t help but think of all the moments in my life when I, able to apply hindsight and recognize the fact now, let past fester underneath present to bitter ends. Denis’ film has an extraordinary ability to peel back personal defenses and lay bare the foundational essence of one’s personal mayhem. As I said at the top of this piece, we are all truly customized sacks of chaos floating around trying to make relationships work. Sometimes they do, and sometimes our respective wounds, as Jean notes in the film, “never heal” enough to trust someone else to help protect them. Denis has made a masterpiece in the process of telling a story about two people trying to love in spite of themselves.
Both Sides Of The Blade is currently playing in select theaters courtesy of IFC Films.
Denis has made a masterpiece in the process of telling a story about two people trying to love in spite of themselves.
Devin McGrath-Conwell holds a B.A. in Film / English from Middlebury College and is currently pursuing an MFA in Screenwriting from Emerson College. His obsessions include all things horror, David Lynch, the darkest of satires, and Billy Joel. Devin’s writing has also appeared in publications such as Filmhounds Magazine, Film Cred, Horror Homeroom, and Cinema Scholars.