Photo: IFC Films
Grégoire Colin shows up early in Both Sides of the Blade. We only get a glimpse of his character from him, François, from afar. He’s standing on the sidewalk, putting a helmet on his girlfriend’s head, then donning one of his own before the two drive off together on his motorcycle. But from the way Sara (Juliette Binoche), and the alarmed strings on the soundtrack, react to the sight of him, you’d think she’d just had a vision of her own death from her. She hurries inside the building where she works as a radio show host — did he choose the spot on purpose, knowing she’d pass by? — And she clutches herself dramatically in the privacy of the elevator, murmuring her name. When she mentions having seen the man to her husband Ella Jean (Vincent Lindon), it’s with such forced casualness that Jean can barely bring himself to play along.
François soon comes calling for Jean as well, with talk of the two of them starting a new company together, an offer the out-of-work ex-con can’t and doesn’t want to turn down. The way Sara and Jean dance around the topic of François reentering their lives (“What do you think?” “What do you think?”) has the disconcerting air of former addicts making an unspoken agreement to break their sobriety. François is Sara’s ex and Jean’s former business partner, and for the first half of this wonderfully exasperating drama from Claire Denis, he seems like a figure of near-demonic power capable of luring two people old enough to know better into destructive patterns they thought they broke when he left town a decade ago. When we finally get to see him up close, though, his Mephistophelian allure of him dissipates instantly. Colin is one of Denis’ regular collaborators of her, and has played the alluring object of desire for her before, but in Both Sides of the Bladethe more we see of him, the more he verges on the ridiculous — not the irresistible force he appeared to be at first, but an excuse.
There is something exquisitely grown-up about Both Sides of the Blade, which works its way up into a series of excruciating fights between Jean and Sara in which they talk and talk and wound one another terribly while failing to ever say what they really mean. It’s not that the characters behave maturely — anything but, really, despite the years, and the chic Parisian apartment they share, and their respective paths at work. Jean, a one-time rugby player who uncomfortably coasted into work as a sports agent on the sputtering fumes of his own career as an athlete, in particular appears to be half-heartedly playing at being a professional. When he blusters at Marcus (Issa Perica), his Black son who lives with his grandmother (Bulle Ogier) in Vitry, spewing out incoherent thoughts on racism and on downward mobility, we’re aware of just how poor a place he’s in to dole out advice. The movie’s sophistication comes from its sharp observations of its characters’ weaknesses, even as they deny those flaws in themselves and call them out in everyone around them.
Lindon, so good as the grieving fire chief in Titan, is a beguiling sad sack here, chafing against feeling like a kept spouse, and keeping up a pretense of busyness that largely serves as an excuse to duck calls from his mother and from the son he neglects. He’s so relieved to be working again that he puts off actually hammering out what the financial arrangement is between him and François, despite every indication he has good reason to want it in writing. Binoche, meanwhile, dives into Sara with an exhilarating lack of dignity. Sara is so flustered by François that she comes to a party to see him and then can’t bring herself to go inside, calling instead and gazing up at him through the window. She behaves as though she and François were characters in an EL James novel — “Here we go again,” she murmurs to herself in the mirror in the middle of the night, “love, fear, sleepless nights, the phone at my bedside, getting wet” — though when we see them in bed together, he’s hardly some irresistible lothario, trying for anal sex and when denied, sitting peevishly on the toilet in protest.
The melodrama of Sara’s reactions are entirely her own, as though she and Jean have all this time bought into the idea that they’re two characters in a love triangle still waiting for a resolution. Both Sides of the Blade begins with the pair of them swimming in the ocean while on vacation, canoodling with an effortless intimacy. But there are already hairline cracks running through their relationship, visible in the way Jean asks for Sara’s credit card and then feels emasculated and changes his mind, and in the unasked-for denials Sara starts issuing from the moment she spots François on the street. The couple’s industrial-inflected home looks airy and expansive the first time we see it, but as Jean and Sara start bludgeoning their relationship to bits, Denis frames the space as though it’s maybe a meter wide. Both Sides of the Blade isn’t a film about two people seduced into destruction, but about two people who can’t help but blow up the contentedly complacent lives they have — the lives they insist are what they’ve always wanted, despite the choices they go on to make.