TEXAS, USA — There may be no more hair-raising a sequence in 2022’s movies thus far – not the final mission of “Top Gun: Maverick,” not the introduction of a psychopath in “The Batman,” not the volcano-set climax of “The Northman” – than when Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon unleash all their frustrated might on each other in director Claire Denis’ barbed-wire marriage story “Both Sides of the Blade.”
Any attentive audience will sense the tensions creeping, buoyed along by the guttural swells of Stuart Staples’ score and the way their apartment suddenly feels more cramped than it did moments earlier. But in a movie where narrative expectation gives way to the burden of familiar agonies, these two titans of the medium cut into each other with such force that they threaten to shake a genre’s familiar confines off its hinges.
And why shouldn’t they? Shaking genre conventions off their hinges has been Denis’ sweet spot as a filmmaker for more than 30 years. The through-line underscoring the French master’s restrained take on militarism in “Beau Travail,” the anxious gracefulness of her scifi slow-burn “High Life” and the heartbreak of her tender-hearted “35 Shots of Rum” is the clashing of cinematic mood against life’s mysteries. Her films – whether oblique or obvious – activate certain nerve endings within us as moviegoers, as if to signal something else entirely is happening on the opposite side of the screens than what we’re seeing. “Both Sides of the “Bade” may be easily categorizable as lovelorn melodrama, but any doubt that Denis hasn’t retained her ability to show one thing and present another is dashed in the opening moments, as the silhouettes of Binoche’s Sara and Lindon’s Jean wade serenely in the open water while a volcano grumbles from somewhere offscreen.
There are things we can glean about the relationship between Sara and Jean, and there are things we can’t. Their physical passion is established early on as they tangle in the water, between the sheets and on the balcony; very quickly it becomes difficult to imagine these two out of each other’s close embrace. Of course, that begs the question of what happens when they aren’t. Further complicating the inquiry is the arrival of Sara’s dashing former flame, François (played by a brooding and seductive Grégoire Colin, another Denis collaborator), suspiciously pursuing a new business relationship with Sara’s current lover. Slowly, and then all at once, the hazy foglights of an ambiguous past – Sara and Jean could be cultivating a decades-long relationship or a weeks-long one – illuminate these lovers’ vulnerable sides, as well as the jagged edges of a movie whose tonal waves crest before we've had a chance to hold our breath.
There are other things going on in this story, their impact more tangential than directly consequential. For example, there’s Marcus, Jean’s son from a previous marriage and stuck in a purgatory of young adult life. There’s also a hint that the trouble chasing Marcus is generational; occasional mention is made toward Jean’s previous imprisonment, though those specifics aren’t divulged either.
That doesn’t mean they don’t influence how we watch Denis’ film, and the assumptions we glean from a movie whose primary thematic interests seem to be obsession and impression. The tinges of absurdity propelling the movie’s mood swings (Denis isn't above an explicit reference to Jack Torrance), mixed in with a screenplay that refuses to divulge as much information as most any other story of its ilk would, makes it a compelling companion piece to Michel Franco’s “Sundown” from earlier this year. If the movie sometimes feels like it’s swirling the emotional drain, it’s because Sara can barely keep it together when within a mile of François; she’d rather look over her shoulder and see the fire coming before letting it overtake her. This may be a deceptively simple story about the clashing of romantic fates involving three people you could very well have passed on the street this morning, but “Both Sides of the Blade” gains menacing new dimension not because we think we know how the prickly everyday drama will unfold, but because the film recognizes spontaneity can be as volatile a force in love’s later stages as its first steps are wondrous. Its existentialism is right in line with Denis’ past works, albeit taking the form of fateful text messages and feelings that can’t be taken back once divulged (if they’re truthfully divulged at all).
“Both Sides of the Blade” is ultimately a blistering work of dialogical warfare from a filmmaker best known for conveying the subliminal power of images. Stuffed with the implications of organic and technological conversation, the movie appears constantly at risk of succumbing to the sameness of what happens when backs are turned… at least, until you realize that intentions remain hazy. The overarching conceit of old sparks drifting toward sturdy love may be crystal-clear – indeed, it’s explicitly stated within the first 15 minutes – but the details are captivating when presented through Denis’ lens. There is anger and yelling, and suspicion and yelling, and regret and yelling—it’s no mistake that its characters grow increasingly primal the more time goes on, and that the movie’s original name, “Fire,” more succinctly echoes the elementality at its center.
"Both Sides of the Blade" is now playing in limited release, and will be available on digital platforms later this year. It's not rated. Runtime: 1 hour, 56 minutes.
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, Grégoire Colin.
Directed by Claire Denis. Written by Claire Denis and Christine Angot.
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