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Thread: Both Sides of the Blade (Denis, 2022)

  1. #1
    Fifteen is my limit on schnitzengruben The Dark Poet's Avatar
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    Sep 2014
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    Both Sides of the Blade (Denis, 2022)

    Claire Denis is one of our greatest living filmmakers, which is partially the result of her versatility and ability to tell a range of stories that transcend genre and convention, but keep the same fascinating spirit that makes her one of contemporary cinema’s greatest revolutionaries, even several decades into her filmmaking career. However, one subject she has struggled to fully explore is that of romance – she’s looked at desire in many forms throughout her career (whether the carnal craving of the flesh, or the motivation to overcome working-class strife in order to receive the glory of a better life), but its the idea of love itself that has evaded her. However, it was inevitable that we’d see her thoughts emerge on the subject, and her most prominently romantic film was the dismal Let the Sunshine In, a riff on A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes that told the story of a middle-aged woman trying for a second chance at love later on in life. It was a dreadful exercise that represented a sincerely low point in the otherwise brilliant director’s strong career. A few years later, Denis has returned with a film that shares many similar traits, particularly the aim to explore the concept of romance, albeit from a slightly different perspective. Both Sides of the Blade (French: Avec amour et acharnement) is a work of unhinged compassion and fury, which exist in tandem under the director’s adaptation of the novel Un tournant de la vie by Christine Angot (who worked with the director in adapting her novel to the screen), which focuses on the trials and tribulations of a seemingly happily married couple once someone from their past makes their way back into their lives, throwing their entire relationship into a state of complete ambiguity. Powerful and beautiful on one hand, but firm and impenetrable on the other, which leads to a very dynamic and daring work of art that may not be for everyone, but it does work for many in particular contexts.

    There are many astonishing ideas that underpin Both Sides of the Blade, which is a film that makes its intentions clear only late into the film, leaving most of the first act relatively opaque, depending on the individual viewer’s own interpretation. Denis doesn’t like to offer answers prematurely – her films sometimes don’t even have neat resolutions, and find themselves being left open to different perspectives, which can be engaging when done well. The question is whether or not this particular film lends itself to us giving it the benefit of the doubt in many instances where it would be very clear what it was aiming to be. Both Sides of the Blade is a work that doesn’t know precisely what it wants to be, and spends slightly too much time trying to establish this, rather than making some of its more ambitious ideas the central focus, leading us to extrapolate what we can, since we never know whether or not they’ll ever be revisited again, or if they purely exist as a means to get between different narrative points, which are oddly less intriguing than the small details that punctuate the film. There’s a tonal imbalance to this film that can be quite bewildering to those who are not accustomed to these ideas in general, so Denis was certainly not intending to craft a film that is necessarily the subject of widespread appeal – but considering her body of work, it’s unlikely that she ever had much interest in populism, with the only difference here being that her strict refusal to buckle to conventions doesn’t always mesh with a story so deeply steeped in conventions, so much that there almost seems to be theoretical and structural conflict, much of which is dynamically presented throughout this film. Both Sides of the Blade is far from a perfect film, but it has its moments of genuine brilliance, which makes it at least decently worthwhile on an academic level – whether these wealth of ideas translated well into a single, coherent film remains to be seen.

    Denis has a knack for drawing strong actors to her work, which one would imagine has something to do with not only the fact that she gives them exceptionally good characters, but also that she consistently challenges them as performers. It’s hardly surprising that many actors have done some of their best work under her direction – and while her work with Binoche has been divisive to say the least, it has allowed both of them to push the boundaries of their art through the collaborations. Both Sides of the Blade is some of their more daring work, with Binoche demonstrating a level of complexity and vulnerability that we have not seen from her in years. She has rarely been more internal than she was here, and she commands the screen without needing to resort to the hysterics, allowing her evocative emotiveness to do the brunt of the work. Vincent Lindon conversely is the embodiment of fragile masculinity – any other actor playing the role of Jean would have likely made him extraordinarily one-dimensional, but in the hands of such a capable performer, he becomes a soulful, complex character that feels fully formed and interesting, not in spite of his clear flaws as a human being, but as a result of them. Binoche and Lindon have remarkable chemistry (which makes reports that they clashed quite often while filming all the more peculiar), and while the film doesn’t necessarily want us to feel like these are characters that belong together, their interactions are certainly quite enthralling, and they’re both delivering standout performances in a film that needed their good work to establish itself as more than just a straightforward romantic drama.

    Structurally, Both Sides of the Blade is certainly a very interesting film. How else can we describe it than as a carefully curated journey into the nucleus of a married couple as they navigate the boundaries between consolidated love and raw desire, delivered through a stream-of-consciousness approach that is derived from the director’s unique fascinating with not only the subject matter itself, but the general ideas that it represents? There are many exceptional qualities that may be bewildering to those expecting a more coherent set of ideas, which is certainly valid (especially considering the subject matter that resides at the heart of the film. Perhaps if there is a flaw, it would be the lack of focus on a particular viewpoint – both of the central characters are well-crafted, and performed brilliantly by the actors, but they don’t quite work together in tandem in the way that we’d expect from a two-hander such as this. If anything both Binoche and Lindon somehow operate as being supporting in each other’s stories, rather than sharing the focus throughout the film. Perhaps this was intentional, but it ultimately led to a film that is not particularly strong in terms of how it characterizes these individuals together, which buttresses the idea that their relationship is growing increasingly strained as a result of the spectre of the past coming to haunt them, but at the expense of those moments where we’d hope to be convinced towards the undying devotion that supposedly underpins their marriage, which we never really come to appreciate as a result of the film’s more inconsistent approach to exploring them as characters. It’s not a major shortcoming, but it is one that feels like it could have easily have been circumvented with a more concise approach, and with further attention to the details in moments when we are supposed to believe that these are two people who feel some kind of strong emotions to each other, and not just the cathartic hatred we encounter in that stunning and provocative final confrontation between the pair.

    Both Sides of the Blade is a daring and provocative exercise in existential romanticism, and a series of fascinating moments handcrafted by a director with a sincere passion for the ideas that simmer beneath the surface. It’s not always very clear what Denis is intending to do with this film – some may argue that it’s just a series of disjointed scenes that showcase a previously happy marriage that has begun to fail when certain events lead both parties to reevaluate their relationship. The film does take some time to fully allow all of its ideas to unravel, but it becomes quite an enthralling experience once it hits a particular stride, and we find ourselves growing increasingly more engaged with the material, which is drawn from a place of genuine and undying interest in the life of a marriage that has slowly begun to unravel as a result of infidelity, both physical and emotional. The film doesn’t always succeed in all of its ideas, but it can be seen as something of a revelation when it finds time to expand on certain details – and whether we appreciate it for its stunning humanity, or its complex exploration of the idea of romance (and its incredulity towards happy endings, a vital element of this story), we can always find something valuable in this film, a work that’s the biggest shortcoming is perhaps that it was slightly too ambitious, to the point where not everything it is doing is all that successful – what when it works, Both Sides of the Blade is quite good, and finds the nuance in a very complex story that proves that there are still new ideas to be drawn out from taut conventions and concepts.

  2. #2
    Cor Cordium Eduardo Zuckerberg's Avatar
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    I'm such a slut for well executed melodrama, and this served. Loved how romantically it was shot before everything slowly but surely collapses.

    Juliette Binoche is close to career best here.

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