A slow burn that never quite bursts into flame, “Both Sides of the Blade” is likely to appeal most to those who are already fans of director Claire Denis. That said, would anyone turn down the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with her luminous leading lady, Juliette Binoche?
Certainly not Jean (Vincent Lindon, “Titane”), smitten lover of Binoche’s enigmatic Sara. The film opens with the two of them on vacation, frolicking in the ocean and unable to keep their hands off each other. The rather mournful score from Tindersticks, which could have been lifted from a 1970s divorce drama, is our early hint at troubles unseen.
Jean and Sara, it turns out, have been together for nearly a decade and still seem to be madly in love. But then we notice that he has to ask for her credit card when he wants to go shopping. She spots her ex-boyfriend François (Grégoire Colin) in the neighborhood and casually mentions to Jean that “when you love someone, it never really goes away.” There’s reference to a jail sentence, and brief glimpses of Jean’s teenage son, Marcus (Issa Perica), who lives with his grandmother (French New Wave icon Bulle Ogier) rather than his father or absent mother.
And then François calls Jean out of the blue, suggesting they work together. Jean notices the way Sara looks at her ex but agrees anyway. Is it because he needs the job? Because he wants to blow up his relationship? Or some other reason we can’t foresee?
Anyone hoping for easy answers from the screenplay Denis wrote with Christine Angot (“Let the Sunshine In”) is bound to be disappointed. Then again, those already in Denis’ groove are just as likely to appreciate her refusal to offer them. She does not speak — as she puts it — the “conventional vocabulary of bourgeois conjugality.”
On the other hand, these characters are meant to live in the real world. The icy lens of cinematographer Éric Gautier (“Ash Is Purest White’) ensures that Jean and Sara do not embody the Paris of your dreams but of their mundane routines. They have to remember to carry their COVID-era masks everywhere, and it’s usually rainy or gray as Sara heads to her radio job interviewing guests on a range of social ills.
There are no bright and shiny days for Jean, either, when his mysterious past keeps blocking his unformed present. Or, for that matter, when he occasionally visits Marcus, whose mother is Black and who wants no part of his white, absentee father’s lectures on ignoring racism.
This tension between Denis’ cinematic imagination and the characters’ quotidian lives winds up feeling less nervy than frustrating. Marcus seems too often like an afterthought not only to Jean but also the movie itself. Sara’s emotional impulsivity becomes increasingly less believable, and neither man is either the hero or the villain that might inspire her unlikely choices.
Still, Binoche is reliably excellent, even when Sara herself is unconvincingly capricious. And though Colin’s François remains a symbolic cipher, Lindon, Perica, and Ogier bring a lived-in authenticity to their characters’ unsettled lives. Ultimately, what Denis gives us most of all is a mood. “Tu le sens?” François asks Sara, wondering whether she feels what he does. “Oui, je le sens,” she agrees, after a very long pause. Two sides of the same knife: either you feel it, or you don’t.
“Both Sides of the Blade” opens in U.S. theaters July 8.