Auteur Denis’s latest outing but doesn’t go far enough to convince you

Berlinale 2022: Auteur Denis’s latest outing brushes up the age-old conundrum of infidelity while still living in a fulfilling partnership for the digital age.

A seemingly perfect marriage of a middle-aged couple is rocked by a messenger from the past in Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade that played at the competition section of Berlinale. Auteur Denis’s latest outing brushes up the age-old conundrum of infidelity while still living in a fulfilling partnership for the digital age, but the results are meandering and inconclusive, even as Juliette Binoche comes out all stars blazing in this adultery drama.

Radio presenter Sarah, played by Binoche, and her partner Jean, Vincent Lindon is a couple seemingly in love as sensually demonstrated by their easy intimacy and passionate love making sessions in the opening scenes. Before long, Sarah brings up a certain Francois, with whom she was before she met Jean, reminiscing how she was smitten by the latter as soon as she saw him with the former. “Why don’t we ever talk about what Francois represents in our lives,” she asks him.

As if her speaking his name out loud jinxed it, Francois appears in real life, apparently holding no grudge towards Jean or Sarah. Francois pitches a business opportunity to Jean, who as an ex-con with limited employment prospects, immediately accepts the offer. Sarah’s obsession to Francois, however, soon takes over the relationship. With unresolved feelings still left for Francois, she’s like a caged butterfly, fluttering to be let out.

Just as Francois becomes the gravitational pull in the couple’s relationship, Denis introduces other characters on the periphery. Perhaps Christine Angot’s novel, Un tournant de la vie, from which the screenplay is adapted, may provide better context and as a work of literature, it’s easy to see how it could have assisted with the narrative momentum and diverse representation in the story.

Either way, as a result, we get a story of Jean’s biracial son Marcus whose Mauritanian mother abandoned him in his father’s care. When Jean goes on a rant to Marcus who believes that he will never receive opportunities because he’s coloured and Jean convinces him of the perceived equal treatment of French citizens of colour, regardless of their ethnicity, one wonders if the film is getting distracted from its plot. There must be room for discussions on racism in an adultery drama no doubt, however, since the film has already convinced the viewer that Jean is an absent father, its indulgence in this sub-plot only appears a smidgen forced.

But when the focus returns to the main plot, the tension has already peaked. Sarah has increasingly become obsessed with Francois, appearing at the opening of the sports club uninvited, to the chagrin of Jean and meeting Francois at will and sexting and with him. Jean, perhaps like the viewer, is startled by the discovery that Sarah is willing to sabotage her contented relationship for an old flame after he caught them almost kissing.

But when Sarah claims he’s being controlling, one wonders, where exactly is the proof of that because this dissonance in the relationship has thus far never been explored. Perhaps therein lies the problem with Both Sides of the Blade – the tension at the heart of the story is not clearly well defined.

Nobody’s a saint in Denis’s drama where adultery shakes and finally brings down the foundations of a relationship. The film wants to subversively question the boundaries of marital loyalty but gets mired in its own head, stumbling on how to achieve it. With vignettes of mask wearing Parisians, the Covid-19 pandemic is written into the script, even as it’s barely discussed.

Binoche is so closely framed by Guatier’s camera and revels in the role of a conflicted woman, unmindful of the destruction her choices cause. Vincent Lindon as the volatile Jean (from last year’s Cannes winner Titane) bristles with unbridled emotions as the simmering tension the affair brings into their lives surface. Grégoire Colin as François comes across as a mysterious figure even as he’s one of the central characters. Matti Diop in a small role still leaves a mark.

In the end Sarah leaves a trail of destruction in the wake of her choices. But it’s not detrimental to her life because she may indeed not be remorseful of it. In the way that it’s a portrayal of a freethinking woman’s ability to make her own decisions regardless of marital commitment, a sort of feminist diktat on sexual freedom, Both Sides of the Blade captures your attention. But it doesn’t go far enough to convince you to empathise with Sarah.

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