“Both Sides of the Blade excels when it most closely examines the patchwork of growing stratification and tension – from thorny silences which can erupt into heated arguments, to once-minor quibbles that suddenly come roaring up to the surface.”
by Ken Bakely
All throughout Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade (also known in English as Fire), we see portraits of struggling and failed connections – to communicate with others, to reconcile with oneself – and the slow-growing but inevitable havoc that this wreaks in the lives of its characters. They map out from the central pairing: Jean (Vincent Lindon) and Sara (Juliette Binoche) are a middle-aged Parisian couple with complicated pasts. She is a successful radio journalist, he is a former athlete who is trying to rebuild his career as a sports agent after a stint in prison. Jean also struggles with estrangement from his teen son, Marcus (Issa Perica), who is having a troubled adolescence in the suburbs, living under the care of Jean’s mother, Nelly (Bulle Ogier). And conflict is piling on thick at home – Jean and Sara’s relationship, seemingly solid and well-built at first, is rocked by the (re)introduction of François (Grégoire Colin), Jean’s business partner who happens to be Sara’s ex. His arrival causes shockwaves, with Sara suddenly inundated with feelings for him that she had long thought dormant. As time goes on, it’s clear that the pleasant veneer which once enwrapped Jean and Sara’s marriage is rapidly eroding, and there’s no respite in sight as the two find themselves stuck in the center of a grueling emotional storm, not knowing how to navigate out.
Denis lets us into the complex and haunted inner lives of her two main characters, letting the viewer understand and explore the overwhelming emotions swirling around. Her cast performs admirably, navigating the proceedings with a quietly simmering discontent that matches Denis’s script. Lindon and Binoche lead with expectedly strong work of their own, and it’s worth considering how their characters’ experiences compare and contrast. Jean is explored somewhat more externally, focusing more clearly on the interactions and dialogues of the strained relationships in his life. There is not only the deterioration of his marriage, but his efforts to build a relationship with Marcus, though perhaps too much time has passed for it to work (and Marcus, who was born to Jean and a Black mother who lives in Martinique, also finds himself subject to Jean’s awkward attempts to discuss race and identity). Lindon also must navigate Jean’s undiscussed but troubled past, and the stakes riding on his attempted professional comeback, all complicated further by what’s happening with the man he’s trying to achieve that with. That brings us to Sara, whose journey, by comparison, is far more internalized – and Binoche certainly delivers with a mighty performance that examines the slow-rolling storm within. She is overcome with contradictory feelings – happy in her marriage but inexplicably drawn back to François – and the impossibly daunting and harrowing possibilities that come from the choices she could make from those feelings.
All of this will come to a head – or rather, and perhaps more realistically, keep progressing along the lines that they have been for a while. The mood deepens and darkens as Eric Gautier’s cinematography seems to grow dimmer by the scene; the status quo is being ruptured, and Jean and Sara will have to examine the pieces left behind (to that end, much has been made of the fact that this is also a very COVID-era film, with few locations and many face masks). Both Sides of the Blade excels when it most closely examines the patchwork of growing stratification and tension – from thorny silences which can erupt into heated arguments, to once-minor quibbles that suddenly come roaring up to the surface. It’s not always performing at that level, though: this is the kind of movie where, for better or worse, where it plays to a certain baseline level of tone and efficacy, to occasionally inconsistent results. A lot is established under deceptively sparse table-setting. But there are also stretches where not much is really happening at all, and it’s just spinning its wheels in the grim vibes of its domestic anguish. And to that end, the movie eventually arrives at an ending which is perhaps a touch too neat to match what’s come before. Still, what Denis and her company accomplish here is often impressive, seeking to build a searing and provocative relationship drama that lingers in discomfort but never wallows in it, gazing at the growing maelstrom as things fall apart (if they were ever that connected to begin with) and diving into whatever might be found in the wreckage.