Both Sides of the Blade, screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, is the latest film by multi-award winning French director Claire Denis. This film is very, very, very French, meaning, it’s a slow burn. You will not get the familiar story arcs or happy ending, rather a slice of life where it is up to you to decide how to feel, sans soundtrack prompts. Unlike most male-centric Hollywood films, Denis turns her attention towards female desire. And the protagonists are NOT nubile 20-somethings. Yes, middle-aged people can have satisfying love lives on screen.
Both Sides of the Blade opens with a sensual romp in the water between Jean (Vincent London) and Sara (Juliette Binoche), still gaga over each other after ten years. When they first met, Sara was living with Jean’s best friend François (Grégoire Colin). By chance, François comes back into their lives and offers Jean a job. This is clearly a bad idea. Unsurprisingly, things spin out of control rapidly.
Don’t expect the usual clichés around love triangles. Sara knows she’s stepping into a minefield, but can’t help herself. She may love Jean, but she never stopped loving François, and well, the sparks are flying with no regrets.
Clearly, Sara has a thing for bad boys. Jean did time in prison, and is now an absentee father, leaving his son Marcus with his mother, always having excuses to not visit. François is impulsive, and maybe he’s pursuing Sara just to get back at Jean. It’s not clear who has the power in this trio.
Says Denis, “Male desire is not bad, but female desire is perhaps better. They are entitled to the same lapses as men. Adultery? Betrayal? This conventional vocabulary of bourgeois conjugality is totally foreign to me. Sara is neither submissive, nor a victim…… For her, life is an adventure, a double-edged sword”. That’s a lot to unpack.