Despite its stellar cast, Claire Denis’ latest romantic drama fails to engage with its audience.
Despite society’s conviction that love is everlasting, a relationship is, in fact, a fragile thing. With a single act, you can sever a bond that takes years to create. As such, the tenuous nature of romantic love is a constant source of inspiration for stories across all media.
It’s no shock that Claire Denis would use the breakdown of a relationship for her 15th feature film. Both Sides of the Blade (French Title Avec amour et acharnement) showcases her ability to dissect the nature of desire and how our inability to either quell or satisfy our wants can lead to our downfall. Unfortunately, while Denis has some astute observations on our fickle natures, the finished product is too detached from its subjects to make for a satisfying watch.
Radio journalist Sara (Juliette Binoche) lives in Paris with her ex-rugby star and ex-convict husband Jean (Vincent Lindon). However, their relatively blissful relationship begins to feel some strain when she spies her ex, François (Grégoire Colin), on the streets of Paris, causing her to reminisce about her past relationship.
Her past begins to meld into the present when Jean decides to team up with François to create a sports talent agency. François takes no time before trying to win back Sara. Soon, she must choose between the stability of her current relationship and the passion she felt for her previous lover.
It’s a simple story. Denis doesn’t add much new to it other than a subplot about Jean’s son Marcus (Issa Perica) from a previous marriage. Marcus is living with his grandmother in the Parisian suburb of Vitry and trying to decide between continuing his high-school education or going to vocational school. It’s a decent thematic counterpart to Sara trying to figure out what path she wants to follow in life. However, it feels superfluous as Marcus’ choice is more clear-cut, and his subplot ends with no actual resolution.
To be fair, the subplot’s lack of resolution is consistent with the rest of the film. It’s obvious that Denis wanted to create a slice-of-life type of movie with a loose story structure that often feels like it’s emulating the randomness of real life. While I can appreciate verisimilitude, a movie isn’t reality. It needs either a structured plot or heightened visual style to sizzle on screen. As is, Both Sides of the Blade is just sad people experiencing the “métro, boulot, dodo” aspect of Parisien life with bouts of infidelity and arguments to break up the tedium.
[I]t’s a movie about infidelity that lacks any real passion.
The arguments prove the highlight of Both Sides of the Blade, bolstered by some phenomenal performances from Binoche and Lindon. In particular, Binoche is fearless, effortlessly portraying a woman who is duplicitous and uncaring without being completely unsympathetic. Lindon portrays Jean as a man who knows his life is on the verge of falling apart while still failing to do anything to stop it until it’s too late.
Their twin spirals of destruction finally culminate in a fight where both actors bring their characters to a breaking point. The scene manages to draw out the extremities of emotion without feeling histrionic. It’s the type of scene actors live for: visceral and exciting, with plenty of meat to sink their teeth into.
Unfortunately, most of Both Sides of the Blade is missing that meat. Sara doesn’t interact with François–aside from a glimpse of him in the first act–until halfway through the runtime. Instead, we see her normally interact with Jean, with only ominous music from the Tindersticks to hint at impending doom.
Even when she finally interacts with her ex, their love affair doesn’t create sparks on screen. Instead, much like the rest of the film, it is matter-of-fact and unsexy. While it’s understandable that Denis may not want to romanticize infidelity, we need to see why Sara desperately wants to be with François. If it’s not for the sex, we need to see why.
But Denis doesn’t show why any character does anything. There are few explanations for backstories and character motivations. Interpersonal relationships are inferred rather than explored. In the end, Both Sides of the Blade feels more like a rough cut of a documentary than a narrative film, and it keeps the viewer at arm’s length from what they’re watching.
This detachment makes Both Sides of the Blade such a frustrating watch. This has all the qualities of a great film: excellent acting and direction, good cinematography, and a decent (albeit on-the-nose) score. But it’s a movie about infidelity that lacks any real passion. A story about the breakdown of a marriage that lacks any real climax. It’s a movie that just…exists, and that is probably the worst crime any piece of entertainment can commit.
Both Sides of the Blade is available for chance encounters in theatres now.