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Both Sides of the Blade ★★★★



Director: Claire Denis

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, Grégoire Colin, Mati Diop

Release: September 9th, 2022 (UK)

Both Sides of the Blade, a new Claire Denis film re-uniting many actors appearing in her previous films, contain all the ingredients to guarantee a warm reception from audiences. Its tale of the seemingly happy, in-love middle-aged couple Sara and Jean, played by French cinema favourites Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon, and the challenges encountered when a former lover threatens their blissful set-up is typical of French cinematic drama in embracing slow cinema concepts. The film is based on the 2018 novel Un tournant de la vie by Christine Angot and seems to rely on some literary devices that may not translate well on the big screen. Therefore, Both Sides of the Blade’s preference for silent pauses, moody cinema, emotional crises, and self-reflection is likely to test the patience of many cinemagoers. The positive side is that the film’s tone and cinematography evoke impressions of Denis’ subtle but impactful film 35 Shots of Rum. Similar, striking scenes of everyday city life are depicted through the sharp images of public transport and railway tracks. Parallels can be drawn between the two films, as Mati Diop and Grégoire Colin reappear from 35 Shots of Rum.

Both Sides of the Blade tenderly explore the microcosm of Sara and Jean’s relationship beneath the surface. Holiday scenes depict the couple frolicking carefree in the water within an idyllic sun-drenched scenario. Interestingly, Sara and Jean utter few words within their nirvana and appear to have achieved that perfect balance of compassion and passion for each other. Without the need for excessive exposition, Denis turns such a dynamic on its head once the weight of day-to-day routine returns. Compared to the boundless space on a beach, the starkness of an apartment subtly portrays such change in a circumstance where the silences between the couple now convey the added significance and elicit acerbic commentary from Sara about Jean’s unusual shopping habits.

There is something uncomfortable in observing this slight deterioration in a couple’s relationship without any explosive altercations providing a warning. But this slow, pedestrian burn matches the film’s overall tone as lack of communication, ennui and throwaway comments prove to be those relationship weapons of destruction. Both Sides of the Blade will create resonance as audiences recognise that quest for validation, attention and recognition from other parties. The film’s French title, Avec Amour et Acharnement, perhaps more accurately predicts the problem with such a turn of events as it speaks of love, fury, or restlessness. It is certainly intriguing to observe such elements in effect with a woman in the position of power within a triangle Lamoureux.

Both Sides of the Blade explore the dangerous impact of rekindling the past with Binoche’s fantastic, emotionally vulnerable performance. Binoche easily convinces us that Sara is a woman trapped by circumstance amidst the emotional turmoil created by casually spotting her former love. She is the sensual, edgy François, played by Grégoire Colin. In another nod to 35 Shots of Rum, Colin once more portrays the role of a mysterious, unattainable interloper disrupting the dynamics of a close-knit family unit.

Despite Sara having a well-developed career at a radio station, Denis’ direction of Binoche unveils that unspoken yearning for more within her domestic surroundings. As the film unfolds, Sara’s outbursts create that impression of a liberated but still captive woman, like a gilded bird, and thus Binoche elicits sympathy despite Sara’s apparent romantic indecision.

Both Sides of the Blade present that rarely depicted scenario of a woman with two loves that seem impossible and ultimately unsatisfying. Sara is placed in this unenviable position without a clear resolution and appears incapable of instigating a decision of her own volition. Many women may therefore identify with Sara’s predicament as the need to be kind and considerate, especially in a relationship, is conditioned in women and may inadvertently result in duplicity. Denis captures this angst brilliantly with close-ups and tends to remain involved in the emotionally messy stages, capturing each nuance and immersing the audience fully within the unfolding drama. It is perhaps these elements that prevent Both Sides of the Blade from being relegated to the position of being a hollow, melodramatic romantic drama as it is not plot-driven. 

Aside from unleashing that emotional devastation from Lindon’s performance, Denis’ direction fails to demonstrate the full extent of the fury described in the original title, which results in an overall sense of listlessness within the film. Perhaps that is the point with Both Sides of the Blade being a mood conveying Sara’s emotional journey and the sub-conscious quest for freedom, which cleverly and subtly invites the audience to examine their wants and behaviours within relationships.

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