Claire Denis’ new film BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE (AVEC AMOUR ET ACHARNEMENT) charts the love and breakdown of a romance between two lovers who have jilted and been jilted before. It’s an intense drama that skirts the border of melodrama with some strong performances but ultimately relies over much on its score to set tone and fails to bring its disparate narrative threads together.
The film opens with Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) swimming in the sea, intensely focused on each other and very clearly in love. It’s a beautiful moment between two lovers: the kind of moment that feels perfect. However once they return to Paris, tensions immediately start to puncture their relationship. Sara sees her former partner, François (Grégoire Colin), from a distance with another woman and is both disturbed and intrigued. François soon insinuates himself into the couple’s life in a way that threatens to tear everything apart.
“There’s a strong film buried somewhere in the finished edit of BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE but unfortunately this version doesn’t quite find it.”
According to Tom Grater in Deadline, Denis regards ‘BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE’ as the real English title of the film because it “describes the movie”. The French title, AVEC AMOUR ET ACHARNEMENT, would be literally translated as ‘With love and determination’ and, despite these possible titles, the film is being marketed with the rather bland title, FIRE, in English-speaking territories.
The diffuseness of the film’s title however proves to be quite apt as it mirrors the diffuse nature of Binoche’s Sara who develops parallel and contradictory wants and needs over the film. She loves Jean and the stability of her life with him but feels an irresistible yearning for François and, more importantly, what he represents for her. For much of the film, François is this unseen and invisible force who nonetheless exerts a strong gravitational pull on both characters. Sara is as horrified by François as attracted to him and Binoche works hard to get this across in her unpredictable performance.
Unfortunately the film builds most of its subtext about Sara’s feelings towards François through melodramatic music cues. The constant sinister music that plays whenever François is discussed or appears on-screen pushes us towards emotional conclusions to a greater extent than the script or the performances. This ultimately leads to a tonal mismatch between the actions depicted on screen and the overblown music that almost feels like it belongs in Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM and sours the subtle performances from the two lead actors.
While the love triangle between Sara, Jean, and François drives the film, there’s also subplots around Jean’s new rugby talent agency with François and Jean’s son, Marcus (Issa Perica). These subplots are underdeveloped to the point that some late scenes where Marcus runs away from his grandmother’s (Bulle Ogier) house feel entirely superfluous and completely thematically disconnected from the rest of the film. Director Mati Diop appears in a couple of these scenes as a pharmacist but feels entirely wasted in the disconnected short film that these scenes constitute. There’s a strong film buried somewhere in the finished edit of BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE but unfortunately this version doesn’t quite find it.