We Won’t Grow Old Together
by Patrick Preziosi

Both Side of the Blade
Dir. Claire Denis, France, IFC Films

Claire Denis frequently eschews linearity in her work, but her films are always viscerally present tense. When the past does return, it’s often bludgeoning and unwelcome. In such jittery, conspiratorial, and violent films as L’Intrus and Bastards, the director has shown her skill at creating initially difficult-to-parse achronological structures (standing in contrast to comparatively conventional constructions of romantic possibility in Friday Night and Un beau soleil intérieur, aka Let the Sunshine In). It’s unlikely that such a mercurial and personally driven artist would intentionally invert her own formula (if one can call her work a formula), but her newest, Both Sides of the Blade feels like it achieves just that. Building upon an offscreen history that interlinks its characters, the film navigates the gray areas between polite infidelity and messy commitment, ultimately driving towards separation.

The film’s opening is intoxicatingly, if suspiciously, idyllic. Wordlessly embracing in the surf, Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) succinctly establish their loving bond, their never-unclasped hands cutting through the sediment in the water, Éric Gautier’s camera bobbing over and under the waves. Denis then cuts to what’s presumably iPhone footage of the Paris metro, fuzzy and immediate, plunging the film into the vaguely privileged milieu it inhabits for the remainder. Sara and Jean enact their domestic routine upon returning to her apartment, pulling back the curtains, unpacking their bags, having sex; their bliss may appear to be a constant state of being, but as the film continues, these quotidian activities seem to be their way to preserve a bubble of isolation amidst the bustle of contemporary Paris. Soon it’s back to work for Sara, who hosts an NPR-like show which invites writers and other guests to discuss current events, mostly concerning race, while Jean, an ex-rugby player and ex-con whiles away the hours driving his Peugeot to the grocery store and trying his best to overcome the draconian banking measures levied against those who have served time that leave him reliant on his girlfriend.

Sara willingly offers her own personal stability for Jean to lean on, though this almost unconscious selflessness is thrown into confusion when she catches sight of an ex-lover down the street from her workplace. As François, Grégoire Colin fully abandons any illusion of rugged, bodily youthfulness, gone to seed like the paunchy and greasy characters he’d played in 35 Shots of Rum and Bastards, his last two films for Denis. The mental real estate this once-disappeared man takes up for Sara begins to occupy her home life with Jean, who, reconnecting with François himself, goes in with him on a rugby talent scouting venture. François is now in their orbit; the past distracts from the present.

This love triangle suffers from a shared, painful obsessiveness that deflects the characters’ responsibilities, and which also put the ages of Sara, Jean, and François in perspective. Jean has a mixed-race son, Marcus (Issa Perica), from a previous marriage, though he’s mostly ignored unless there’s a disciplinary issue, stowed away with his grandmother (Bulle Ogier) in Vitry; Marcus suffers a number of understandable crises given his age and race, though his father only either parrots superficial parenting advice, or complains about having to make the trip out to see him (though he doesn’t seem to mind those long drives to the grocery store that he takes almost daily). Sara submits to Jean’s frequent self-deprecation and is caught up in the fairy-tale return of François; her entire life outside her job is encroached upon by these two men. François is the more elusive participant, without betraying much in the way of interiority; he has a too-young girlfriend (Lola Créton) he actively neglects. Both Sides of the Blade diagnoses the traps of modern romance, the aphorism-heavy sex and proclamations of complete devotion masking the three principal figures’ essential incompatibility: it’s possibly Denis’s least romantic film to date.

The party-line on Denis has long been that she’s a director who coaxes out equally passionate and diaphanous sensations from unlikely scenarios, discomfiting circumstances enhancing her films’ tactile loveliness: anonymous one-night stands, cannibalism, the Commodores’ “Nightshift” on the stereo. These are the building blocks for unassuming and piercing moments of consummated desire, shaky, and quite capable of dissolving within only a few seconds. As soon as Sara spots the initially unknowing François, Denis begins to puncture the hazy, extended reverie between her and Jean, the relationship then beset by demanding responsibilities and the gnawing anxiety of reconnecting with one you loved years ago. When invited to Jean and François’s agency launch event, Sara, stranded outside, falls back on an all-too recognizable social defense mechanism, calling the one person at the party she knows as a lifeline. The camera adopts a similarly invasive function as Sara pushes inside––the closest Gautier comes to approximating the signature Denis-Godard visual disorientation––and the overwhelming presence of François looms. She and François embrace, and Denis undercuts whatever fulfillment may have been generated from this reunion as he promptly gropes Sara, in full view of Créton, an objectifying, one-sided, and private moment made shamefully public.

Colin, now 46, may be the best representative of Both Sides of the Blade’s wariness of romance, the presentation of his aged body a far cry from the display of his toned physique in Beau travail. He wedges his way between Sara and Jean, though the expectation of a rekindled love is never quite acted upon. When François and Sara get a hotel room together, she’s rightfully dazed, wishing to revel in a patient reacquaintance, both physically and emotionally. Childish and impatient about not being able to get right to the sex, he pleads for at least a chance for some intrusive manhandling. It’s a juvenile request, and it reinforces Sara’s desire for a perhaps unattainable stability and mutual understanding, which Binoche conveys via a tight-lipped emotionality that eventually breaks loose. The deeper reasons behind Sara's outward emotions are consistently teased across the film, though the other characters still act willfully oblivious to such visible hints at roiling, debilitating confusion.

Both Sides of the Blade’s production came to life when COVID-19 lockdowns delayed the shooting of the director’s upcoming Stars at Noon. These circumstances give the film a welcome off-the-cuff feel, constructed of equal parts intertextual, possibly subconscious allusions (like her Ozu homage 35 Shots of Rum) and the “relentless” (as per Denis), though intimate, shoot. Lindon’s innate burliness grows into a more pointed brutishness reminiscent of Jean Yanne, and the film itself comes to resemble Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together in the ever-widening gap between its central couple. At the same time, Sara’s bouncing back and forth between two men recalls Chantal Akerman’s Night and Day; the crux of both films is the uncontrollable vicissitudes of relationships, the imperfect patterns that one adopts to account for loving two people at once.

The Denis film Both Sides of the Blade might most recall is Let the Sunshine In (an ostensibly modest project made between “major films” also featuring Binoche warding off a series of lamentable men), yet in its drive towards (self-)destruction it brought to my mind Denis’s 1994 film, I Can’t Sleep, in which the casual stringing together of characters intentionally delays the realization of a more despairing end goal. In this case, however, that despair is sidestepped at the last possible second, possibility spanning out into infinity. In the final scene, Sara exercises a newly stoked agency that announces itself with a blunt immediacy, like the floor falling out. Some are bound to find the ending rudely perfunctory or unceremonious––but it also gratifies like the perfect grace note.