August 6, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Claire Denis
French with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in the French cities of Paris, Vitry-sur-Seine, and Bayonne, the dramatic film “Both Sides of the Blade” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black and biracial people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A woman and a man, who have been in a nine-year, live-in relationship, have their relationship tested when the woman starts to think about getting back together with her most recent ex-lover, who was her current lover’s best friend.
Culture Audience: “Both Sides of the Blade” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Juliette Binoche, filmmaker Claire Denis and well-acted movies that take their time exploring the intracacies of conflicted feelings about love triangles.
“Both Sides of the Blade” is so immersive with the stifling tedium of staying too long in a dead-end relationship, viewers might be bored by the movie’s slow pacing. The performances depicting a love triangle make this introspective drama worth watching. “Both Sides of the Blade” (formerly titled “Fire”) is not the movie to watch if people are expecting a lot of neatly resolved storylines or a movie where there are clearly defined “heroes” and “villains.” The movie doesn’t pass judgment on who’s “right” and who’s “wrong” in this love triangle, but instead presents what happens in an observational way.
Directed by Claire Denis, “Both Sides of the Blade” (which takes place in France) is based on Christine Angot’s 2019 novel “Un tournant de la Vie,” which means “a turning point in life” in French. Angot and Denis co-wrote the “Both Sides of the Blade” screenplay. “Both Sides of the Blade” had its world premiere at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival, where Denis won the Silver Bear prize for Best Director.
The story is essentially about a couple who got together because of infidelity and betrayal, and the woman in this couple starts to wonder if she made a mistake and should go back to her ex. The movie’s biggest strength can also be considered its biggest weakness: It realistically shows the back-and-forth indecision that some people have in love triangles about if, how or when they should end a relationship, in order to choose one person over another. Some viewers will be frustrated by this indecision seeming to drag throughout most the movie, while other viewers might be curious to keep watching to see what until the very end of the movie.
In “Both Sides of the Blade,” radio journalist Sara (played by Juliette Binoche) and sports agent Jean (played by Vincent Lindon) are a Paris-based couple who are in their late 50s to early 60s and who have been living together for the past nine years. The movie’s opening scene shows Sara and Jean frolicking together in a large body of water during what appears to be a romantic vacation. Jean and Sara later have sex. Everything looks like they are a loving couple in a healthy relationship.
But it isn’t long before the cracks in the relationship begin to show. And the trigger seems to be when Sara unexpectedly sees her ex-lover François (played by Grégoire Colin) on a street, but he does not see her. Sara seems so overcome with emotion after seeing François, when she’s at the radio station, she leans against a wall and whispers repeatedly, “François,” as if she’s pining for a long-lost lover.
When Sara is at home with Jean, she casually mentions to him that she saw François, just to see what Jean’s reaction will be. He doesn’t seem phased either way. Sara seems like she wants Jean to have more of an emotional reaction, or even some curiosity, at this news. She’s disappointed that this sighting of François doesn’t affect Jean as much as it’s affected her.
The story of this love triangle is revealed slowly in “Both Sides of the Blade,” with no flashbacks but with descriptions of the past that are discussed in conversations. When Sara met Jean, he was married to another woman who is now his ex-wife. Sara was living with François, who was Jean’s best friend and co-worker at the time. On the first or second occasion that Sara and Jean met, the three of them (Sara, François and Jean) went to a house party together.
Sara vividly remembers that at this party, Jean watched her and François dancing together. Jean was looking at a computer, but he was also noticing Sara and François. Sara was emotionally struck by how happy and contended Jean looked at that moment. And she felt a spark of attraction to Jean.
This trio left the party together by sharing a taxi. Rather than wait for the tax to drop off Sara and François at their place first, Jean decided that he was going to walk back to his house because his wife was waiting for him at home. The presumption is that Jean couldn’t wait to see her. Sara remembers feeling at that moment that Jean’s wife must be very lucky to have a spouse who’s so devoted to her.
At some point, Jean became attracted to Sara too, and this attraction turned into mutual love. Not too many details are given about the breakup of Jean’s marriage and the end of Sara’s relationship with François. But what is clear is that Sara and Jean left their respective partners to be with each other. And there was enough messiness and hard feelings that Jean’s unnamed ex-wife (who’s never seen in the movie) no longer speaks to him.
François has also been out of the lives of Sara and Jean for quite some time. Until now. And later, Jean has some bombshell news for Sara: François is starting his own sports agency, and he wants to bring on Jean as a partner. This news sends Sara on a path of inner turmoil and confusion that she tries to hide from Jean.
Her emotional agitation is also mixed with curiosity about how seeing François again on a regular basis will affect her life and if she can handle it. As far as Jean knows, his relationship with Sara is pretty good, although not as passionate was it was in the beginning. Over time, it becomes obvious that Sara feels differently from Jean: She thinks her relationship with Jean has hit a rut and that the relationship isn’t necessarily worth saving.
It’s not that Jean is mistreating her in any way. But perhaps Sara has been falling out of love with him and doesn’t quite know how to tell Jean. For Sara, seeing François again has made Sara think that maybe she made a mistake in leaving François for Jean. Her anxiety goes into overdrive when Jean makes the decision to start working with François. Sara knows that this work relationship will affect all three of their personal lives.
“Both Sides of the Blade” has a somewhat awkwardly placed subplot about Jean’s estranged relationship with his 15-year-old son Marcus (played by Issa Perica), who is in his second year of high school. Marcus lives with Jean’s mother Nelly (played by Bulle Ogier) in Vitry-sur-Seine, which is about five miles from Paris. Marcus’ mother currently lives in Martinique and is not really in contact with him, implying that she abandoned him.
Marcus is currently having problems because he’s been stealing money from Nelly, and he’s been getting into fights with other boys at school. Marcus is close to being expelled at school. Marcus tells Jean that he if he drops out of high school, he’ll probably will go to a trade school, because he has no plans for a university/college education. It’s unclear if his parents’ divorce caused Marcus to have any emotional problems, but his interactions with Jean are very strained. Marcus (who is biracial; his mother is black) claims that he’s being bullied at school because he’s not white, and he says the black kids and Arab kids at school get treated the worst.
Jean doesn’t show much empathy and makes a racist comment to Marcus by asking why black people and Arab people can’t think independently of their own skin color. (It’s very easy for anyone who benefits from white supremacy to have the attitude that Jean has.) Jean then lectures Marcus by saying that Marcus needs to be his own person. There seems to be no real point to this scene, except to show that although Jean might be very loving to Sara, he’s not a very good father to Marcus.
One of the movie’s flaws is that it doesn’t show or tell much about Sara’s life outside of her home and work. She apparently doesn’t have any close friends, and she doesn’t confide in anyone about her unresolved feelings for François. Mati Diop has a quick and thankless role as a pharmacist name Gabrielle, who seems to be an acquaintance of Sara’s.
There’s no real mention of Sara’s family. She seems to be completely uninterested in having any type of relationship with Marcus. And that’s not surprising, considering that Marcus probably blames her and Jean for the breakup of his parents’ marriage.
Even less is told about François, who is in the movie fleetingly, as Sara eventually ends up spending some private time with him. “Both Sides of the Blade” is told from Sara’s perspective the most. The movie seems to make François look mysterious and intriguing as a way of Sara trying to relive that heady feeling when someone want to start a romance but it’s unknown if the other person really wants the same thing.
Is Sara one of those people who likes the chase and then becomes bored after she gets what she wants? Binoche’s performance is fascinating because it will keep viewers guessing about her motives and whether or not she really thinks that being with François will make her happy. Lindon also gives a nuanced performance as Jean, but Jean’s story arc is ultimately more predictable than Sara’s.
“Both Sides of the Blade” is far from being a masterpiece. It will probably never be considered a classic film either, because so many other movies have covered similar “love triangle” stories in much better ways. But if you have an interest in movies where talented cast members skillfully portray people with messy love lives, then “Both Sides of the Blade” is a fairly solid option.
IFC Films released “Both Sides of the Blade” in select U.S. cinemas on July 8, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on August 23, 2022.