Juliette Binoche puts in another tremendous performance in Claire Denis’ drama Both Sides Of The Blade (aka Fire, and also aka Avec Amour Et Acharnement). The Berlin Film Festival competition title is an intimate slow-burner that sets a credible scene, but doesn’t quite deliver on the mystery it promises.
Binoche plays Sara, a radio presenter who has been with Jean (Vincent Lindon) for 10 years. They appear to be very much in love. Gradually, it’s revealed that they met through Sara’s ex-boyfriend François (Grégoire Colin), whom she suddenly spots in the street one day.
Consumed by strong feelings, Sara is unnerved when François gets in touch with Jean, suggesting they work together on a new business venture. She becomes paranoid when the two men meet up — and increasingly confused when she finally gets to speak with François.
The melodramatic score uses traditional thriller tropes to suggest that something ominous may happen, and that suggestion keeps the attention for some time. As ever, Denis is excellent at creating tension and intrigue, allowing the audience to pick up clues about her characters, from Jean’s shady past to Sara’s love life. So it’s quite disappointing when the script, co-written with Christine Agnot, turns into a simple heterosexual love triangle story.
The film is most remarkable for Binoche’s committed performance as a woman who is led by passion, and seems to be in love with falling in love. Denis also tackles some topical issues, from consent to racial politics, but the latter feels slightly self-conscious, as Sara interviews people about race for her radio show and Jean tries to connect with his teenage son Marcus (Issa Perica), whose mother is Black.
There’s a small role for actor-director Mati Diop, whose breakout role was in Denis’ 35 Shots Of Rum — she’s an interesting character, but it’s a small role in a subplot that feels like it belongs in another movie. The same could be said of Bulle Ogier, who plays Jean’s mother Nelly, struggling to deal with Marcus, who lives with her.
While Denis regulars Lindon and Colin both put in excellent performances, they suffer from the same problem as almost everyone in this film: they are ultimately quite hard to like, let alone root for. Complex characters are one thing, but a love triangle in which you don’t care about the characters is another. For the first hour, this feels like it could be a Denis classic, but it burns out long before the credits roll.
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