Claire Denis’ emotionally searing Both Sides of the Blade opens with a middle-aged couple swimming in a vast, glimmering ocean as they lovingly caress each other. The image is serene and crystalized, which makes the sudden cut to their bedroom –where they have sex with animalistic abandon– an attention-grabbing transition. It sets the mood for a movie that vacillates between dreamlike ecstasy and harsh reality without ever losing focus of its characters’ inner lives. It’s a beautiful balance and a cinematic feat that can only be accomplished by a veteran filmmaker like Denis. The French director’s oeuvre (High Life, Let The Sunshine In), illustrates a knack for crafting simple stories dense with human complexity. Her latest is not only a worthy addition to her nearly thirty year career, it’s one of her best.

The couple in question, Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon), live in a modest apartment in Paris. Sara hosts an NPR-style program in which she interviews everyday citizens about war, poverty, and racism. Jean is an ex-convict with a record who’s struggling to land a steady job. Although the script by Denis and Christine Angot (based on her novel) never specifies why Jean went to prison, we can tell from his constricted posture and baleful stare that he has a troubled past. In addition to feeling like a social pariah, Jean also struggles to emotionally connect with his teenage son, Marcus (Issa Perica), who lives with his grandmother (Bulle Ogier) in a neighboring town.

Even with their problems and Covid-19 raging on the streets, Sara and Jean’s bond seems pure and indestructible. For a couple that’s been together for ten years, they’re still very much in love and sexually vibrant. Even their apartment feels like a protected womb where they fawn over each other like lovestruck teenagers. Denis and cinematographer Eric Gautier frame the apartment’s interiors with thick swaths of shadows and a peripheral darkness, suggesting that the cold light of day never enters their world.

Then, out of nowhere, Jean’s old business partner (and Sara’s former lover), Francois (Grégoire Colin), comes back into their lives, and their protected bubble is disrupted. At first, Jean is excited to see his old business acquaintance again. Francois wants Jean to recruit former rugby players for his new sporting agency. Although Jean is fully aware that Francois and Sara were involved in a passionate relationship at one time, he’s just happy for the opportunity. Sara on the other hand seems petrified.

As expected, the pair’s repressed desires rise to the surface like molten lava, but they don’t fall into their old ways immediately. Sara still loves Jean and walks the streets of Paris with a pained, zombified stare, as if she’s scared of what’s befalling her. The moments between Sara and Francois are startling and raw. They circle each other like wary beasts, before dropping the masks they’ve worn for so long and devouring each other.

Like a triangulation collapsing on itself, the urgency between these three players is intense and agonizing. Lindon (recently seen in Titane) is a tightly wound avatar of self-pity and grief. With his mournful stare and scrunched brow, he’s a man who’s barely holding on to what he’s got. His emotions are constantly kept at bay, and he might explode at any minute. Still, we empathize with his situation because we see his capacity for love. Binoche once again proves she’s one of the world’s great actresses by inhabiting multiple emotions at once, conveying more in one quick glance than most actors can accomplish in a dozen films. Unlike a lot of actors who want to moralize their characters, she leans into her character’s contradictions.

As one of France’s most lyrical and confrontational directors, Denis doesn’t present love as an impenetrable force which conquers everything in its path (leave that to contemporary American cinema, which is intent on juvenelizing the world with cartoonish morals). For Denis, love is a gray zone. Even with its glittering prizes and extreme highs, love is an emotional mist where we can bury hidden truths and repress our authentic selves. By pointing her camera on quivering hands, darting eyes and strained smiles, the filmmaker illustrates how physical gestures are just as important as words. Maybe more so. She also never pulls away when screaming and pain threatens to become melodramatic. Life is drama. Why turn away from it?

With a haunting score by British band Tindersticks (the film’s title was taken from one of their songs), Denis also captures a difficult moment in history. Taking place during the height of the pandemic, with everyone huddled in their own bell jar, you can feel the tension and uncertainty in the air, just as Sara and Jean sense it in their withering relationship. As the story deepens and the past begins to crawl out from the murk, you think about that opening shot of our protagonists splashing in the translucent water and realize it was simply an idealization of perfection – a fantasy of what we want but can never truly possess. In this incredible film, Denis forces us to ask if romantic love is simply an idealization of human perfection. It’s a scary thought.

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