Sleeping With the Past

Both Sides of the Blade

by George Wolf

Claire Denis is an endlessly fascinating filmmaker. She might be working in horror (Trouble Every Day), sci-fi (High Life), documentaries (Toward Mathilde, Venice 70) or shorts (various), but Denis is always mining ways to subvert your expectations and probe her characters’ motives.

With Both Side of the Blade (originally titled Fire), Denis digs into the erotic drama landscape via the same game plan, crafting an abstract and often challenging narrative that’s built around a good ol’ love triangle.

Sara (Denis favorite Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Titane‘s Vincent Lindon) are longtime partners, and when the film opens they are wrapping up a vacation that seems to have been a wonderfully affectionate and often orgasmic time.

But back home, Sara catches a glimpse of her former lover Francois (Grégoire Colin) and is left shaken. Feelings are stirred even more by Jean’s new plan to start a business with Francois. The two men are also old friends, and Sara’s nearly decade-old decision to leave Francois for Jean seems like a wound long healed.

Well, that depends.

And as the past begins to fracture the couple’s present, Jean is also working to mend the relationship with his teenage son (Issa Perica) that was strained from Jean’s stint in prison years earlier.

But while all of the stakes may be easy enough to grasp, Denis and co-writer Christine Angot twist the personal interactions in intriguing ways. Denis doesn’t do sentimentality, but the film’s first two acts present character choices and dramatic histrionics that just don’t ring true unless we allow for some intimacies that will not be divulged.

Binoche and Lindon are astounding together, locking Sara and Jean into a conflict fueled by a battle with their own identities, as Colin provides the mysterious temptation always lurking on the periphery.

Why does Jean seem to be pushing his wife toward her former lover, only to burn with jealousy? Does Sara truly love either man, or only a version of herself that always seems out of reach?

It’s only in the final act that Denis moves away from pulling at the seams of this genre to let her actors deliver a finale rich with emotional honesty. Peace is finally made, and not only with the choices from Sara and Jean’s respective pasts. Challenges and complexities from the film’s earlier moments melt away, and Both Sides of the Blade becomes a moving and rewarding psychological study.

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