After winning a grand total of zero prizes from leading international film festivals over the past thirty years — a span during which she was easily a contender for the world’s best working feature movie director — Claire Denis has duly been feted in 2022. In February, a jury in Berlin headed by M. Night Shyamalan bestowed the 76-year-old filmmaker with a Golden Lion for Best Director for the romantic drama Both Sides of the Blade, starring Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon. In May, the latter was the President of the jury in Cannes, which tapped Denis’s Dennis Johnson adaptation Stars at Noon, featuring Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley, with the competition’s Grand Prix, a prestigious silver-medal equivalent won in recent years by Spike Lee and the Coen brothers.
Technically, Denis split the citation with the up-and-coming Belgian director Lukas Dhont, and then — after a long and digressive speech — walked off stage with the physical award before the younger director could get in a single word of thanks. (Watching the ceremony streaming on YouTube, I laughed out loud; the moment was pure, wordless slapstick comedy). The selection was a surprise, insofar as Stars at Noon was, to put it mildly, a polarizing item at Cannes. Following the premiere, journalists tossed off astonishingly hostile tweets whose implications were twofold: that the movie was perhaps not very good, and that Denis’s reputation was solid enough for her to be treated like a punching bag. More intrigue: with Lindon at the helm of the jury, it was tempting, both for critics on the ground and armchair Croisette watchers alike, to put two and together and assume that, on some level, the fix was in.
Stars at Noon won’t show in North America until at least the fall, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the backlash intensifies or reverses (I’m placing my bets on the latter). In the meantime, the theatrical and streaming release of Both Sides of the Blade represents a chance to check in on Denis following the commercial failure of 2019’s bleak sci-fi thriller High Life. That film seemingly ticked a lot of boxes as a potential English-language breakthrough, including and especially the presence of Robert Pattinson as a top-billed star. But its brutal, oblique contents proved hard to market, even for the master brand managers at A24. (Some miniature, limited-edition “fuckboxes” would have surely been collectors’ items).
A withering critique of the carceral state featuring plot points involving rape, murder, and incest, High Life is not an easy watch. Over the course of her remarkable career, Denis has avoided making anything resembling crowd-pleasers, and that goes for the in-crowd as well. With the exception of 1999’s awesomely homoerotic Beau Travail — which transposed the oceanic narrative of Billy Budd to the African desert with Neil Young and Italian eurodance thrown in for good measure — she hasn’t really made a consensus masterpiece. Instead, she makes movies that inspire passionate debate. Both the sex vampire drama Trouble Every Day and the globe-trotting character study L’Intrus were received initially with bafflement. A few years ago, a colleague of mine called Denis a “gunslinger,” an analogy that gets at the strangely ornery, confrontational nature of her practice, as well as the uncanny way that her movies seem to stare the audience down as we’re watching them, as if daring us to blink.
One of Denis’s biggest fans is Barry Jenkins, who’s said that his lyrical, intensely physical aesthetic exists in her shadow. Early on in Both Sides of the Blade, Denis seems to be repaying the compliment, showing us a middle-aged married couple frolicking in the sea. The choreography as Jean ( Lindon) playfully manhandles Sara (Binoche) along the surface of the water recalls the rapturous passage in Moonlight where the protagonist is being taught how to swim by his adoptive father. The sense of a mutual, longstanding intimacy is palpable, but Denis revels in her characters’ bliss just long enough that pleasure becomes tinged with anxiety. Have we intruded unduly on somebody else’s happily-ever-after? As it turns out, the island trip is just an idyll, and soon enough, Jean and Sara are back in Paris, where their spacious apartment only superficially places them above the city’s fray. Jean’s an ex-con who’s made a habit of keeping his head down and needs to jump through hoops in order to see his semi-estranged 15-year-old son. Sara, who hosts a bougie cultural affairs radio show, is well-put-together but existentially unsettled. Even though she’s in a good place, she seems to be looking, subtly, for a way out.
The last act of Both Sides of the Blade is harrowing stuff, unfolding the emotional terrorism that is the shadow side of true love.
Binoche played a similarly voluble career woman in Denis’s excellent Let the Sunshine In, which was also written by Blade screenwriter Christine Angot. And Lindon was memorably sexy as a one-night stand in the director’s ravishing Vendredi Soir. Both Sides of the Blade exists at the intersection of those two films, with the added variable of an ephemeral, free-floating menace that seems to have wafted in from Denis’s pitch-black thriller Bastards — a movie whose title referred specifically to evil, predatory men with the means to control the world around them. The putatively sinister figure here is Francois (Gregoire Colin), a power broker who’s Jean’s old pal and Sara’s former flame; in an early scene, she reminisces to her husband about how she specifically became attracted to him while in the company of her former lover. Colin, who’s aged a bit out of the angelic beauty that he displayed as the virgin Legionnaire in Beau Travail, plays Francois as a guy haloed in subtly bad vibes. It’s not Jean’s imagination that he’s moving in on Sara. For her part, Sara denies that Francois’s feelings are reciprocated. The more she talks about it, though, the more it’s like she’s trying to convince herself.
On paper, this may sound like a fairly conventional love triangle set-up and compared to the formal daring of movies like Trouble Every Day and L’Intrus (or the gorgeously carnal Friday Night, with its central, gridlocked Godardian traffic jam, shot like a swirling, automotive kaleidoscope) Both Sides of the Blade is indeed a bit more straightforward than its predecessors. But it’s not exactly bland, either. Denis’s inspiration here is to shoot things like a horror movie, including a sly visual quotation of The Shining wherein Binoche is shown grinning in close-up through a narrowly opened bathroom door. The basic mechanism of the screenplay is suspense: the will-they-or-won’t-they ambiguity about Sara and Francois matches an anxious visual language in which characters lurk through darkness, the camera in pursuit, synced to jagged editing rhythms; the omnipresent face masks generate their own grim ambience. More than anything, though, the film is pressurized by its actors, who key in on telling physical and behavioral details. Lindon, who was so memorable as the roided-up, heartbroken fire chief in Titane, has a knack for conflating physical power with emotional weakness. Binoche, meanwhile, is peerless at playing characters whose emotional equilibrium seems off-kilter, as if they’re being pulled apart from the inside out.
When Denis was promoting High Life a few years ago, she snapped at an audience member who asked her why she was drawn to unpleasant characters; “I’m not a social worker,” was her terse reply. It’s an assertion that resonates in a moment where the justifiable desire for diversity and representation on-screen butts up against the cynicism of films engineered around showcasing their own virtue, and Denis, whose debut Chocolat was a memory piece about growing up as a white girl in colonial Cameroon, is eternally wary about enlisting in any kind of culture war. Her films are consistently political without necessarily being doctrinaire. For every sequence calibrated for sensual, universal appeal — like the soulful, Commodores-scored interlude in 35 Rhums or the Ella Fitzgerald needle drop in Let the Sunshine In — there are moments that register as alienation effects. The iconic image in Trouble Every Day of Beatrice Dalle as a carnivorous, blood-soaked succubus bristles with an ambivalence about female desire that’s hard to reconcile with any kind of progressive agenda. What links Binoche’s performances in Let the Sunshine In and Both Sides of the Blade is how she inverts her usual charisma so that it becomes impossible to fully identify with her characters’ choices. Does Sara really want to go back to Francois, or is she in denial about where her choices have taken her to this point? Is she trying to avoid a mess, or is she trying to make one? Is it possible to love two people at once without collateral damage?
The last act of Both Sides of the Blade is harrowing stuff, unfolding the emotional terrorism that is the shadow side of true love. One key dialogue exchange takes place in and around a bathtub — a sly, devastating rhyme with the prologue’s open-seas buoyancy. A mishap involving an iPhone takes on the significance of a baptism, but there’s no such thing as a clean getaway.
Whether Both Sides of the Blade is finally top-tier Denis — and regardless of the irony that she’s getting her official due for a movie that might not be — it’s a film that only she could make; a meditation on the relationship between desire and destruction — and freedom and loss — that’s as doubled-edged as its title.
Adam Nayman is a contributing editor at Cinema Scope and the author of books on Showgirls, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.