At the beginning of Both Sides of the Blade, Claire Denis gives us something new: an iPhone creation myth. Blissful ocean waves splash with that XS shimmer, and in the distance, two figures dance. Sara and Jean – Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon – in bliss. It’s like a Malick parody, nothing can get better than this. But the digital photography is too revealing. Vincent Lindon, owner of the widest pair of shoulders known to man, looks oddly cramped by the dimensions of the lens. And he will continue to shrink, as Denis’ game of sexual cat-and-mouse transforms him into a cucked Quasimodo figure.
This magnetic film from Claire Denis sometimes plays like a greatest hits piece. Establishing shots of Paris rooftops could be from Vendredi Soir (2002), recurring shots from the inside of a train carriage looking out at the tracks from 35 Shots of Rum (2008). The absent mothers that haunt Denis’ films, (most recently High Life , filmed while she was in mourning), reach a fulcrum here, where every single character tries to recall what it’s like to be nurtured. These oils with which she paints have never dried quite so solemnly. Back from vacation, the apartment that radio DJ Sara and ex-con Jean share becomes a prison when she spots her motorcycle-riding ex-boyfriend François (Grégoire Colin, ageing with a bloat that emphasises his past glories) near her workplace. Clearly, this awakens something from the deep within, and when François approaches Jean with a business proposition, the couple’s orbit discovers a new constellation.
It is dour and difficult – particularly in the long, talky scenes that pad the film’s second half. As Sara/Jean reconfigure their relationship – their lust, their vision of each other – we get the kind of actorly showcase fight scenes that you wouldn’t expect from Denis, the master of ellipsis. Here, though, extended awkwardness becomes a powerful tool, like when Jean whitesplains racism to his mixed race son, pacing back and forth across a living room with admonishments and assertions of the value of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps.
Denis tends to get a pass for her crude depictions of race. Within her decoupage, her interest in/fetish for Black bodies tends to have a sensuous effect that burrows into the psychology of her characters: they know not what they colonise! Here, though, it becomes too on the nose. Jean’s tearaway son stands shivering on the far end of a railway platform, an image from a thousand bad kitchen sink dramas. When Jean drives to see his son, only to be turned away by the Grandmother who takes care of him, he yells up to his son’s bedroom window. The boy hides from his father behind the curtains. He can’t send him away face to face, but that sheet of glass becomes a dividing screen that makes the truth easier to see.
We see this in reverse, later, when Sara attends a party for Jean’s new business. She practically has a panic attack ascending the stairs to meet François, but outside, she sees him and François through the window. Now, she can speak to them on the phone, knowing their reaction, and hiding her own visage. Later, the phone becomes another body to be caressed and pulsed in that oh so Denisian way. This fear of being exposed is what pushes Sara to go back and forth between the two men. To Jean she is mother, to François she can be plaything. It’s not just that François takes her back to the past, but he takes her away outside of her own reality. Denis emphasises this in her clever use of disposable masks: when they try to kiss, they forget their faces are covered, because they can’t actually see each other, just memories!
In High Life, Binoche’s scientist gave birth to a similar looking daughter, memorably concocted from Robert Pattinson’s semen. Pattinson’s horror at his inevitable attraction to his daughter led him to drag them both into a wormhole. Sara similarly sees Jean/François as two parts of a whole. But if you cannot have both, then each side is incomplete and harrowing: Jean’s bullish aggression threatens to turn violent, while François energy is as cunning and manipulative as it is sexual. It reminded me of the melodrama urtext, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), where Nicolas Ray’s central trio are locked in a battle of wills that seems almost cosmic – if they get too near they will combust. If the twilight colours of Both Sides of the Blade aren’t as immediately appealing as Ray’s bold combination of technolour and widescreen, their clarity exposes Sara, Jean, and François’s own blindness.
By the time this swirling mess of emotion and plot draws to a close, with Tindersticks crooning the film’s title over the closing credits, one feels reborn. The universe ends in High Life. In Both Sides of the Blade, it begins anew.