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Both Sides of the Blade (Claire Denis, 2022)

“There’s a breath to sentences,” Sara (Juliette Binoche) explains to her partner Jean (Vincent Lindon) late in Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade. It’s a non sequitur, delivered in the heat of a lovers’ quarrel in which Jean has interrupted the flow of Sara’s exasperated explanations. But it also spells out a fundamental tension in the film and in much of Denis’s work: between language (and its logics) and the body, which is continually and imperfectly subject to language’s attempts to define and describe it. Even the film’s French title, Avec amour et acharnement—with its untranslatable last word evoking a corporeal response much fleshier than simple “rage” or “fury”—points to this basic irreconcilability of discourse and meatspace. We communicate with both our words and our bodies, but often the two contradict each other.

Contradictions proliferate at the narrative level as well in Both Sides of the Blade. The story is, curiously, at once simple and convoluted, following a love triangle made up of Sara, Jean, and François (Grégoire Colin), Sara’s ex-lover and Jean’s former business partner, who has returned after a long, mysterious absence. Even beyond Sara’s enigmatic statement, “breath” emerges as a kind of sub-theme of the film. It is, quite conspicuously, a COVID-19 film—shot during the first wave of the pandemic, as marked by the ubiquity of surgical masks on screen and the use of relatively few locations. But it’s also a Denis film, and thus its dramas play out on a bodily—and here, particularly respiratory—level: Binoche’s little sighs of resignation; Lindon’s textured, nicotine-stained voice and nose breathing; Colin’s lascivious whisper. In fact, it might be better to follow the narrative progression of the film through its characters’ labored breathing rather than through their belabored dialogue.

Of course, Sara, as the host of a progressive political radio show (a kind of French Amy Goodman) makes a living through language. It’s outside the offices of her Paris radio station that, after the film’s opening scenes of Sara and Jean basking in marital bliss on the beaches of Corsica, she catches a glimpse of François for the first time in years. Soon, her ex-lover begins creeping back into their lives. On the sly he contacts Jean to enlist him in a new business venture that has something to do with scouting and recruiting up-and-coming rugby players. Hard up for work after a mysterious stint in prison, Jean is wary but assents. Soon the two men are off wheeling and dealing—for unexplained reasons, always in the middle of the night—while François and Sara reconnect in covert, nocturnal trysts of their own.

Given the polymorphous perversity of her previous films—including many forms of sublimated interracial and same-sex desires, as well as more avant-garde varieties like incest and sexualized cannibalism—heterosexual infidelity might seem like a trite subject for Denis. Like her underrated 2017 film Let the Sunshine In (also starring Binoche), which took as its focus the easily dismissible subject of a mature woman’s desires, Both Sides is a collaboration with the novelist Christine Angot, whose own work includes her famously incendiary 1999 work of autofiction, L’Inceste, about a young woman’s sexual relationship with her father. What’s striking in Both Sides is how Denis, through style, conveys this world of apparently normative heterosexuality as something deeply sinister. The Tindersticks soundtrack, all bowed basses and Stuart Staples’s basso profondo, suggests an atmosphere far more menacing than anything that occurs at the level of plot. And the film’s predominantly nocturnal settings place it much closer in tone and aesthetic to the Denis films that explore the dark bastions of heteromasculinity than the earlier, sunnier collaboration with Binoche and Angot.

The dimly lit backstreets and obscure exurban office where François houses his vaguely illicit rugby business evoke the seedy demimonde of red-black cockfighting lairs in No Fear, No Die (1990) and the networked spaces of clandestine pornographers and nefarious power brokers in Bastards (2013). Both Sides is dominated by these male-coded spaces, even if it withholds any real insight into the true darkness that might lurk in the hearts of its male characters—the film never addresses why, for example, Jean went to prison in the first place. Sara’s world, by contrast, is limited to her small radio studio and the swank apartment she shares with Jean. We mostly catch glimpses of her inner world when she’s alone in interstitial spaces (an elevator, the bathtub, the street), and through her occasional, somewhat overbearing soliloquies and voiceover. (“Here we go again,” she whispers to herself. “Love, fear, sleepless nights—the phone at my bedside, getting wet.”) It’s in these moments that Binoche’s physical performance—with all its short breaths and nuances—becomes most legible and sympathetic, even if her words and actions seem inscrutable or erratic.

The ominous, almost noirish atmosphere of Both Sides seems to tease something evil or transgressive lurking around the corner, but this is a bit of a red herring. Ultimately, the only violence in the film is the oppressive milieu of bourgeois normativity within which the characters are confined. If heterosexual monogamy emerges as the most obvious and fraught dimension of this milieu, Denis also makes increasingly clear that race—specifically, whiteness—has as much to do with it. The big hint comes in one of the film’s least elegant sequences, in which Sara interviews the (real-life) French author and ex-footballer Lilian Thuram about his (also real-life) book La Pensée blanche (“White Thinking”). Thuram invokes Martinican political philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s canonical 1952 book, Black Skin, White Masks (also a reference point for No Fear, No Die) to describe the state of being “locked into white identity.” Thuram’s argument is that whiteness and its assumptions of superiority are no less constructed, no less pathological, for appearing normative.

By shoehorning this thesis into the center of her film, Denis seems to be enlisting Thuram (and, by extension, Fanon) to characterize the multifaceted prison of identity in which her characters reside: Jean, whose cringe-inducing mid-film lecture to his semi-estranged, biracial son on the difficulties of being Black in France exposes his own identity traps and politics of bourgeois respectability; and Sara, whose very body seems to rebel against the choice between domesticity and desire. That this is a false dichotomy—the product of received notions about love and fidelity—seems to be partly Denis’s point. And after much bathetic screaming, in which Jean plays the part of the enraged, jealous husband, Sara is left exhausted and, finally, at a loss for words. In the wake of all the histrionic recriminations and tantrums, Sara silently rejects the codes and conventions that seek to constrain her, and does so in the only way her body knows how: by taking a bath and breaking her iPhone.

Leo Goldsmith is a visiting assistant professor of culture and media at the Eugene Lang College of the Liberal Arts, The New School.