Filmmaker Claire Denis has long been fascinated by natural gestures. She can trace a man’s veins into the soil, sew a woman’s hair into a curtain, conjure phantasmagoric mise en scene from even the most mundane circumstances. The opening, near-wordless stretch of her newest feature, Both of Sides of the Blade, has the magic that has made her best work so beloved: Jean and Sara (Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche), lovers recently reunited after Jean’s ten years in prison, spend a weekend at the beach before returning to their Paris apartment, rapt in infatuation. The refractions of light become a highway tunnel, the apartment’s domesticity is jubilantly erotic. For a brief stint, the film is electric.
But this is joy in a vacuum, and almost immediately, past and present predicaments pile up. Jean has again become involved with his old business partner (and Sara’s old flame) Francois (Grégoire Colin), who landed him in prison. Meanwhile, Sara grows hysterical in both her distrust of Jean’s activities and her heretofore-latent desire for Francois. A great deal of the story takes place in one increasingly claustrophobic apartment. Denis’s compositions never fail to illuminate the sublime moments before you speak, when the words seem to already have hit the person across the room. Unfortunately, the blocking is a tragedy, as if they only had time to rehearse half of each scene, and the discordant modes of performance between the understated Lindon and the mad Binoche are never in concert.
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This kind of narrative wheel-spinning is obviously an intentional decision to focus on the incrementally escalating distrust between the couple, yet it’s shockingly dull and clunky on a moment-to-moment basis. The movie falls apart before it’s even started, and not even a ludicrously dramatized second half can revive it. Writing has never been Denis’s strong suit, but in such a small film, the amateurish dialogue and formless procession of scenes never give way to the surreal tangents and awkwardly beautiful vignettes which define her masterpieces. Gone are the free-associative snowballs of L’Intrus or the cacophonous interlocking fables of High Life. Instead Denis’s wobbly script remains laser-focused on its crime-tinged love triangle, an aged French New Wave riff for the COVID-19 era.
This turns out to be as ill-advised as it sounds. Like most quarantine cinema of the past few years, Both Sides of the Blade has almost zero perspective on these events, opting to use the pandemic as a backdrop, a brazenly thoughtless misapplication of metaphor. Denis boils COVID-19 down to an aesthetic of loneliness — which, considering the massive health and labor tolls that have come to define these years, is so patently misguided as to dismiss her thematic whims outright. Even the excellent textural details — the absentminded removal of one’s disposable mask, or the ironic anxiety of once again being in a crowded room for the first time in years, desperate to be alone with a single person — are hampered by the film’s overarching trajectory.
Looking at late work from a lauded auteur, there’s a temptation to be so enamored with their artistic quirks and thematic throughlines that one can’t label a failure for what it is. Both Sides of the Blade is not without its merits, and (to be a bit facetious) “fans of the genre” ought to check it out regardless. Viewing it as a Denis agnostic, however, I find Both Sides of the Blade to be one of her few truly awful pictures.
Both Sides of the Blade opens in select theaters July 8.