But you know that.
Director Claire Denis says Sara (Juliette Binoche) “flips a coin” when it comes to seeing her ex-boyfriend (Grégoire Colin‘s François) after more than a decade. She’s built a life with his best friend (Vincent Lindon‘s Jean), a former rugby player and ex-con struggling to get this latest chapter of his professional life started. So, she knows it will be awkward. She knows that she still loves François despite also loving Jean. Will a new encounter therefore rekindle those feelings to a point of no return? Or will it remind her how she’s with the better man? What Denis and co-writer Christine Angot‘s (adapted from the latter’s novel) Avec amour et acharnement [Both Sides of the Blade] provides, however, is a third option: that maybe she doesn’t need either.
That third option is often the reality since questioning her love for both men is just as easily about not loving them fully as it is loving them equally. It also demands she act on her impulses since anything short of discovering what she wants maintains the uncertainty of what might have been. So, when a chance sighting of François on the street (he doesn’t see her) leaves Sara’s heart racing, she can do nothing but wonder. When François calls Jean (not knowing that the two of them are together) about a business opportunity, everything is suddenly on the table. Should she tell Jean not to do it or throw caution to the wind and risk rocking the boat by saying he should, knowing it guarantees a reunion?
Therein lies a second coin flip. Jean knows what François means to Sara and worries about what might happen by bringing him back into her life, but he also knows this job answers his prayers. To get back into the sport at an agency despite his police record is no small thing. So, answering that call leaves him with a similar dilemma. Get his life back at risk of losing Sara or decline the offer and wonder if he’ll ever get another chance. That third option of leaving both behind also exists. Because while he needed Sara to feel human again after prison and François to remind himself (and the sport) that he has something to offer, his happiness and renewed confidence won’t go away if/when they do.
The result is a potent drama depicting two fiery souls embarking upon two roads that demand they each walk alone. To respectively have Sara get close to François and Jean reclaim his spot in rugby means putting the other on the back burner. It must. Neither can truly see what might happen when they let the past find its way back to their present unless they give themselves over fully. Sara must keep Jean at arm’s length, lying to him and turning emotional arguments into wars of semantics. Jean must do the same, making the new job secretive and separate in the hopes he can keep François away for as long as possible. And when the inevitable fallout arrives, their anger proves less about the other than themselves.
It’s a cathartic release in many respects because both characters are on parallel journeys rather than one that sees them in concert. That should be all we need to know as far as where things are headed—both selfishly risking to blow-up their joined life together while having the gall to blame the other when the pain of that truth sets in. It doesn’t, however, make it any less exciting or powerful. We get to see Binoche and Lindon at their most volatile while simultaneously providing an unmatched sensitivity due to neither wanting to hurt the other. Their suffering comes from the realization that they’ve become their own problem. He’s angry that he brought François back. She’s angry that she can’t say no. They’re making their own beds.
Where things get shaky is with a desire to also project a racial commentary upon the proceedings through Sara’s work at a public radio station platforming marginalized voices and Jean’s troubled son from his first marriage being mixed race (Issa Perica‘s Marcus). There seems to be an eagerness on behalf of Denis and Angot to equate society’s penchant for placing people in boxes and blaming them for not being able to escape with Sara and Jean’s (both white) desire to be free from their own cultural and socio-economic albatrosses (her never having lived independently without a man’s love and him succumbing to his past mistakes). Maybe I’m missing something, but the correlation is so non-existent and absurd that the entire subplot with Marcus comes off as distractingly extemporaneous.
For me, Both Sides of the Blade works when we get to see Binoche and Lindon wrestling with their own insecurities and fears through shouting matches with each other. The seething frustration and the palpable rage bleeding through the silences and passive aggressive provocations are beautifully raw and explosive. This is a showcase for them both to work through their characters’ identities after having allowed themselves to be content in their resignation towards a communal state of status quo. They may be happy and in love, but it’s all so superficially set as routine without passion. The latter only arrives via François. He might be their undoing, but he’s also the catalyst to remind them there’s more to life than satisfaction. Sara and Jean desperately need that reminder.
courtesy of IFC Films