Review: Both Sides of the Blade

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Claire Denis

Stars: Vincent Lindon, Juliette Binoche, Bulle Ogier

Claire Denis tells interesting stories, but anyone remotely versed in her cinema will know that it’s as much if not more how she tells them. The mood, aura, textures, gestures, sounds, shadows and spaces. Denis is considered a modern master for how she encloses a story in a palpable set of sense-memory reference points. At their finest (Beau Travail, Bastards), these works of alchemy come to feel like fevered dreams that we’ve succumbed to, as though we’ve willingly placed ourselves in the thrall of a mesmerist.

Both Sides of the Blade sounds like a ‘smaller’ film for Denis only by comparison to the higher profile, higher stakes stories it arrives between; English-language vehicles with chic stars like Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth and Margaret Qualley. But, if anything, Blade goes to show there is no such thing as minor Denis.

On paper it sounds unremarkable. A happily married couple find their marital bliss in disarray when an old friend and flame re-enters their lives, provoking the potential for both a new business opportunity and a deep burning jealousy. Half the movies in the world amount to the old story of “two men, one woman; trouble”. But as ever with Denis it’s the method at work which separates Blade from such a long legacy of domestic pictures.

Sara (Juliette Boniche, making this a hattrick with Denis) and Jean (Vincent Lindon; great, gruff, tender as ever) are our couple in contented if temporary bliss. We meet them on holiday, bathing in the iridescent seas of some picturesque sun-dappled coastline. Above and below the surface they seem alone and pristine in the world. Unspoiled. Denis’ own Adam and Eve. It’s the last time we will feel this way.

A crepuscular transition to pandemic-era Paris (the second in as many movies to include what feels like a nod to Tarkovsky’s Solaris) and tindersticks’ inimitable music immediately change the tempo. A radio DJ and journalist, Sara spots her one-time partner François (Gregoire Colin) by chance on her way to work, though he doesn’t see her. She is visibly shaken by the mere sight of him. Denis frames Binoche darkly in an elevator in the aftermath and we’re left to wonder if Sara is stealing herself from the encounter or revelling in it. We’ll learn more about this man’s significance and power over her later.

Jean is a former rugby player and ex-con with ties outside of Paris, where his aging mother Nelly (French cinema royalty Bulle Ogier) takes care of his moody teenage son Marcus (Issa Perica) since Jean’s former partner flew the coop. The specifics of Jean’s recent incarceration are kept beguilingly off limits, but it isn’t long before he is approached by François to assist in an appealing business venture; a new agency for spotting and recruiting young talent on the rugby pitch. The strains of the past and the present coalesce as the picture hypnotically winds inward, even as François is kept tantalisingly at arm’s reach.

Working from Christine Angot’s novel as source material, Denis catalogues the deeply humanistic ways that people choose to self-destruct. This is a tale of simple, bullheaded fallibility. The steps these characters take feel preordained. Predictability isn’t the point. Inevitability is. Sara especially seems completely aware of the mistakes she is making. Jean is more clueless, and Lindon excels in his frustrated portrait of a man who seems to have decided on his own redundancy. Scenes in which he pleads with either Sara or Marcus for them to change their minds are peppered by the nagging sense that Jean believes he’s already lost the argument. He is all-too-willing, at times, to play the defeated soul.

What may sound like textbook kitchen sink melodrama is given vigor and depth by Denis’ command of her medium and her continuing interest in varying textures. Denis and her editors cut and paste sublime, gloomy footage caught on varying devices. Blade can exhibit immaculate crystalline imagery in one scene and contrast it with lo-fi, compressed data in the next. The mishmash – this spotted harshness – recalls the grab bag intensity found in stretches of Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, and Blade recalls that movie in other ways, too (a standout nighttime soiree at François’ newly opened agency sees former Denis collaborator Lola Créton swoop through frame like one of the lost spirits glimpsed moving through the ghost worlds of Lynch’s opus). The collision of hard and soft matches both the marital tensions between Sara and Jean and the contrasting dynamism of contemporary Paris.

Stuart Staples and his indie band tindersticks hold court with more confidence and force here than in perhaps any of their previous collaborations with Denis. More overscore than underscore, their portentous and sometimes malevolent pieces tender a sense of oppressive doom out of otherwise innocuous sequences. Instead of feeling directed to feel a certain way by heavy gestures, their combination with Denis’ images feels more like getting caught in a current. A synchronous flow that’s too powerful to struggle against. This, in turn, matches the sense of inescapable fate occurring within the characters.

Both incendiary masters of their craft, Binoche and Lindon are pure fire when set alight against one another. Blade broods and defers as long as it can, but when the sparks fly the work is raw, almost to the point of parody (Denis keeps it just the right side of Von Trier-esque hand-wringing, injecting a moment of self-aware comedy). In these moments, Eric Gautier’s frenetic handheld camerawork comes close to the downright experimental. Tense, invigorating work. At other times, we’re smothered by the closeness of these actors. When Sara and Jean first confront the looming spectre of François, Denis and Gautier keep both of them in, frankly, oppressive close-up. Binoche’s face fills the screen. An offing of conventional framing that renders the scene strangely terrifying. Blade is a film filled and preoccupied with worry and we, subliminally, are encouraged to feel the same.

Through these methods and more Denis cultivates a dark bruise of a film that one might view as deeply cynical of human nature or, perhaps, openly aware and accepting of it. The end of the film can feel like a slight misstep or flatline but, with time, it only accentuates how flimsy and brittle our sense of modern connectivity can be. How people can disappear and disperse from our lives like slow-moving traffic. And, in an uncharacteristically optimistic post-credits scene, how life can surprise via continual change and adaptation.

9 of 10

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