If Claire Denis showcased bastards in 2013, then her latest film valiantly salutes bitches. Both Sides of the Blade relishes characters who challenge expectations and defy comfort zones. This dark film deliciously navigates the grey zone between sexy and sordid. Denis reunites with Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, and Grégoire Colin for a domestic thriller that dances on a razor’s edge. Fuelled by a ferocious performance by Binoche, Sara is a complicated character who plays by her own rules. As Sara finds herself caught between two lovers and equally aroused and repulsed by them, Both Sides of the Blade considers what we risk when we want it all. It’s a twisty infidelity drama about staying true to one’s desires.
For one, Binoche and Denis have that rare actor-director chemistry that takes a film to unexpected places. Sparsely scripted by Denis and Christine Angot, adapting the latter’s novel Un tournant de la vie, the duo gives Binoche’s a foil to the loverlorn wanderer of Let the Sunshine In. Both films are tales of women exploring the freedom of sexuality and desire at an age when they’re told to pack it all in. Denis and Binoche trust each other enough to let the performance articulate what a script can’t. (After riding a fuck box in space together, one would hope confidence is a given.) Both Sides of the Blade finds power in passing glances, hints of longing, and words lobbed like grenades into quarrels. Where Let the Sunshine In sees Binoche explore her character’s vulnerability, Blade cuts from the other angle. Sara is guarded, cold, manipulative, and cruel. In navigating the desires of the two men, though, she emerges victorious. She’s not a character to be liked, but definitely admired.
The men in Sara’s life, meanwhile, are bastards in their own right. (And, expectedly, alumni from Denis’ 2013 film Bastards.) Sara’s currently with Jean (Lindon) and they’ve been together for ten years. Everything looks rosy as Both Sides of the Blade opens with a sight of unexpected romanticism for a Denis film. Sara and Jean caress intimately in the water as waves roll sensuously around them. The magic fades, however, as soon as they return to their drab flat. Sara tries to make plans for the night and Jean seems indifferent. Perhaps making out in the open waters, rather than noodling with her beau, is Sara’s fancy.
That thrill of breaking with routine sends a chill up Sara’s back, moreover, when she goes to work the next day and spots her ex, François (Colin). He doesn’t notice her, even though she’s not yet donned her mask while approaching him. Denis’ film is a COVID-19 era production and doesn’t try to hide it. Rather, the surgical masks that pepper the frames evoke the guises we wear in everyday life. Sara pretends all’s well with Jean while finding fulfilment elsewhere. It’s the same dirty trick she pulled on François a decade before when she left him for Jean. The two men, former friends and colleagues, coincidentally resume their working relationship shortly after François re-enters Sara’s path.
Both Sides of the Blade explores the ambiguities of infidelity and betrayal as Sara reconnects a love triangle she incited a decade ago. Both men know the score too. Jean, accentuated with dramatic gusto by Lindon, has all but repaired his life after accepting the penalty for betraying François. Lindon plays Jean with the same towering vulnerability guarded by brute physical presence that made an impression in last year’s Titane. He’s a mercurial teddy bear. Moreover, Lindon and Binoche are simply electric screen partners. What makes their relationship so wild is not the spark of romance, but the palpable toxicity. They thrive off inflicting pain.
With François, Sara isn’t much better off since her previous infidelity gives him a perceived upper hand. The dynamics of power and control at play in Both Sides of the Blade are taut and tense. Denis plays the love triangle masterfully in her own game of concealing and revealing. Smartly controlling the dramatic axis, she might withhold one character from view and leave us to witness another’s reaction. We’re then left with two of the three points in the triangle—Sara and Jean, say—piecing the scene together. What emerges is a play of masterful manipulation. Not one of them can be trusted since they’re equally and plainly duplicitous. Hints of warmth can be seen in small roles by the likes of Mati Diop, or a subplot with Jean’s son, but they’re red herrings in a tale of misdirected love.
In Binoche’s hands, though, one never knows where the knife will land. One suspects that Sara isn’t one to knife a lover in the back. Instead, Denis and Binoche twist the blade slowly and pull a viewer inward for yet another piercing embrace. Being bad rarely feels this good.