Review by Cole Groth
Both Sides of the Blade is one of acclaimed director Claire Denis’s latest films, which recently earned her the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival this year. If you’re familiar with her work, then you’ll almost certainly love this film. However, if you’re new to the filmography of Denis, it’ll be a bit of a struggle to get through this two-hour slog of a romantic drama. While this wasn’t my cup of tea, there are moments where it’s hard not to appreciate the brilliant performances from Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon, and the rather explosive third act is one of the better-written scenes I’ve seen this year.
Opening up with a steamy romance scene between Binoche’s Sara and Lindon’s Jean, Both Sides of the Blade presents us with a story of a married couple who appears to be completely in love. What follows for the next forty minutes or so is an entirely boring and plain series of melodramatic and inconsequential events. Denis evidently does not care how long it takes her to get to the point. While I can appreciate a good relationship being built between characters, it feels largely unnecessary to spend so much time on two characters going about their lives. One of the more interesting elements is how she incorporates COVID-19 and other real-world elements to make the two characters feel very real. At various points, Denis uses an iPhone and real crowds to demonstrate that these are two people grounded very much in reality. They might be stuck in their pasts, but they have to go through them together.
One of the big issues I have with this extensive character development is that it leaves other characters one-note and entirely uninteresting. Other than François, the characters who aren’t Sara and Jean receive almost no development the entire time, and it would almost be more interesting to cut them out of the film entirely and focus on the love triangle that’s developed throughout. Speaking of the love triangle, the core of the film follows Sara as she returns to a previous flame in her life and begins to question her relationship with her husband. During the film, we see a series of extraordinarily erotic scenes between Binoche and her two lovers, Lindon’s Jean and Grégoire Colin’s François. Let me tell you, these scenes get very, very sensual, and as an 18-year-old film critic, it was more uncomfortable watching 60-year-olds engage in sexual intercourse multiple times. If you’re a fan of steamy romance between sexagenarians, this might be the film for you. Again, for me, it wasn’t.
After cringing through most of the movie, mostly due to Sara’s unethical actions, it was nice to see how her actions eventually come back to get her. I loved how Denis treated the issue of Sara’s infidelity, and the third act draws out two of the best performances I’ve seen all year. Her script draws powerful performances out of the trio of talented actors. All of the dialogue feels painfully real, but it’s still not enough to save what feels like an overly melodramatic slog, and while this is technically well done, it doesn’t have the connection that it needs to feel like a film worthy of the praise it’s been receiving. If you’re interested in emotionally complex films, then you might find this to be an intriguing enough look into an intertwined relationship, and I would recommend this to serious cinephiles who love sloppy French romance films.
Both Sides of the Blade is in select theaters starting July 8th, and will release on demand August 23rd.