Claire Denis and Juliette Binoche have made three films together. They are the perfect match. Denis is one of our finest, most fascinating living filmmakers, and Binoche is one of our most rapturous and expressive actors—she’s become more luminous, and more compelling, as she ages. Their 2017 collaboration Lean on the Sun, Binoche played a divorced Parisian painter looking for new love; in 2019’s The Highest Quality LifeIn the film, Binoche played a complex scientist responsible for conducting a fertility experiment deep in space. The two films couldn’t be more different, but in both, Binoche plays characters in their fifties who aren’t even close to giving up on sex. The women that she portrays are just starting to get going, in fact.
The same is true in Denis and Binoche’s third film, Both Sides (The film won the director’s prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival). Its linchpin is a simple love triangle—not that any love triangle is ever simple. Binoche plays Sara, a radio host who lives in Paris with her partner, Jean (Vincent Lindon), a man whose past hasn’t fully allowed him to settle into the present. Jean has done time in prison and is having trouble finding gainful employment, and there are problems with his teenage son, who lives with Jean’s mother (played by veteran French actress Bulle Ogier) in a town outside Paris. Sara is essentially supporting Jean, though she doesn’t seem to mind. Jean is a former rugby player and gets a phone call from his friend asking him to become a Scout for a new agency. The catch is that the friend is also Sara’s ex, François (Grégoire Colin). And he’s the kind of ex who, when spotted from afar on the street, stops Sara’s heartbeat cold.
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This doesn’t necessarily mean Sara will backslide. Or does it? The layers of complexity and mystery built into a Claire Denis film mean that you can never assume where it’s headed. Denis wrote the script with Christine Angot. Christine also contributed to it. Allow the sun to shine in.Denise opens Both Sides with a seaside idyll, gorgeously shot by ace cinematographer Eric Gautier: Sara floats in Jean’s arms, the sun dappling their skin and the water with its light, knowing that both deserve its blessing. They kiss. There’s no one else in their world, no one who could possibly intrude on it, at least for that moment. We also see them lying in bed together, enjoying each others company. It’s Sara’s pleasure that Denis focuses on, so feral and whole that you can’t imagine she’d want anything more. Or, put another way, her sex life has never been better.
Vincent Lindon, Juliette Binoche and ‘Both Sides of the Blade.
Both Sara and Jean are so real to us, so carnal in their very being, that François—more of a ghost figure, a dream rather than a real human being—hardly seems a threat. But that doesn’t diminish the danger he poses to the pattern of Sara’s life. This is where it gets interesting. The pattern isn’t a synonym for boredom. Denis establishes the connection between Sara and Jean and the actors complete it. Lindon—who seems to carry the weight of the world in the bags beneath his eyes, among the sexiest eye-pooches ever seen on-screen—plays Jean as a man who knows how lucky he is, how rare it is to find the bliss he shares with Sara.
Yet there’s the catch: Jean is happy to be Submitted, as if settledShe was a comfortable, secluded spot on a time line. Sara’s mind is so erratic that she can’t even keep track of a time line. At one point she tells Jean, “When you love someone, it never really goes away.” Those could be read either as words of warm, lived-in wisdom or a hurtful truth, but as Binoche plays Sara, they’re both. Binoche’s warm brown eyes, subtly hidden smile and natural empathy make her a great performer. That’s as true in Both SidesIt is the same everywhere else. But she and Denis have become co-conspirators. Sara is a fighter for control. Not only in the context of this story, but when it comes about controlling Sara. Our Feelings about her. Her behavior may be morally indefensible, but it’s impossible to judge her. You might wave it away by saying, “Men do stuff like this all the time and get away with it,” but that’s not the point. You are not. Both sides of the blade Sara isn’t acting like a man; she’s simply being herself, and the raw texture of her desire, and how it affects her behavior, isn’t something we can either applaud or disapprove of. It’s just there,Its utter, brutal and ragged glory. We rarely see it in women who are movie characters. Not as often as we should, and it’s harder to witness and parse than you might imagine. It’s also pretty great.
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