Both Sides of the Blade begins with a brief scene of romantic bliss. Sara and Jean (played by veterans Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon respectively) are enjoying a passionate tryst together by the sea, with the camera weaving around them in the water to capture the intensity of the moment. Inevitably given the original French title, Feu, things do not remain idyllic for the couple. Sara spots an old flame, Francois (Gregoire Colin), outside her work and then Jean goes into business with him, bringing the three into close, dangerous proximity.
Sara immediately seems to recall the passion she once had for Francois, but as played by Binoche and written by Denis and Angot it’s difficult to tell what she actually feels towards him for some time. She acts sick when he is near – in retrospect, likely fear of where her feelings may lead, but at the moment it comes across as slightly bizarre and suggests that Francois is dangerous, which turns out not to be the case.
Meanwhile, Jean has problems of his own in the form of a mixed-race son from a previous relationship who frequently misses school. The mother has been absent for some time and Jean has only recently been released from prison (for reasons unspecified), leaving the boy with Jean’s mother. Jean’s attempts to instil discipline involve telling him not to accept ‘the discourse’ around race that supposedly is keeping him from taking responsibility for himself (in Jean’s eyes). Along with Sara’s work on a radio station interviewing academics on the psychiatry of racism, among other similarly charged topics, it seems like an attempt by Denis to situate their tumultuous relationship in the real world with all its aforementioned ‘Issues’. Granted, Denis has been known for exploring post-colonial themes, but here it’s not exactly clear what the connection is. When one of the interviewees mentions theorist Frantz Fanon, it feels somewhat like namechecking and theme-checking on the part of Denis herself.
The biggest problem, however, is that we are given almost no reason to care for these characters. Some of what Denis is going for is perfectly admirable – depicting the heat of complicated feelings around love and frank intimacy among older characters who don’t often get to have sex lives on film. Nonetheless, these are characters who are given the absolute sketchiest of backgrounds, so there’s very little reason for me to want to root for them when things turn ugly. In the end, it just turns into a screaming match between ordinarily horrible people, complete with whip-pans between the two leads. These talents deserve better.
Image ‘Juliette Binoche at Berlinale 2022’ by Elena Ternovaja is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0