Of all the unsolved mysteries in Claire Denis‘ new Berlin Competition film, the biggest may just be its U.S. retitling to a generic and not particularly representative “Fire.” The film’s English title in the rest of the world, “Both Sides of the Blade” — a line from the terrific Tindersticks track that ends the film —is not just cooler and more compelling. It also provides a much-needed way to parse the movie’s strangely unbalanced dynamics: as a scalene love triangle between a woman, her partner of nine years, and her ex, “Fire” feels oddly out of whack, but as a portrait of that woman, with the two men representing opposing edges of her knife-like need for passionate, unconstrained love, it becomes a little more coherent, if not that much more satisfying.
The woman is radio talk show presenter Marie, played by Juliette Binoche with a charisma so radiant it can almost, but not quite, encompass all her knotty contradictions. The serrated side of her blade is Vincent Lindon‘s Jean, an ex-rugby player who has served a stint in prison and whose bluff, calloused tenderness is a lovely foil for Marie’s mercurial sparkle. The smooth, sharp side of the knife is Gregoire Colin‘s François, a slick, shady entrepreneur and former confederate of Jean’s, with whom Marie was deeply in love before she and Jean got together. One side serrated, the other smooth — that would make this blade a hunting knife, which seems obscurely appropriate for Marie, who turns out to be hungry, almost predatory, in her emotional and carnal desires.
Such ferocity is a far cry from the film’s entrancingly lovely opening, however. In a blue, sparkling sea while a tumultuously sweet segment of the Tindersticks score plays, Jean and Marie are first shown cavorting on a vacation. They dunk and splash and twine round each other like seals, looking so loved up and ravishing in Eric Gautier‘s intimate, sensuous camerawork that they seem like people discovering each other for the first time, or perhaps having an affair. But the music continues as they return to the Paris apartment they’ve shared for years. And even once the film moves out of blissful montage mode, and the lingering effect that a really great holiday can have on one’s mood must surely be beginning to dissipate, still, their interactions are peculiarly avid and intense for a couple of such long-standing. Every kiss, even a “bye I’m off to work” peck is a deep, desirous osculation; every conversation, even casual ones about dinner plans, is delivered with rapt intent; every time they have sex — and Denis always delivers such wonderfully real, tactile sex scenes — intercourse seems to be a revelation, their craving bodies delighting in the covetous surprise of skin on skin like they haven’t long ago grown used to all of each other’s secret nooks and niches.
A portrayal of a middle-aged, long-term relationship of such unusually hot and heavy ongoing passion might be enough to power a whole film. But that would bring “Fire” into a lighter register, closer in tone to “Let The Sunshine In” (which also starred Binoche) than the darker, more tangly vibe given off by the script (co-adapted by Denis and Christine Angot from Angot’s novel “Un Tournant de la Vie”) and especially, again, by that broody, intrigue-laden score. So, a wrinkle appears as Marie catches a glimpse of François, her long-ago lover, on her way into work one day and has an immediate, physical reaction, clutching her belly in distress in the elevator and moaning his name. In bed that night, she mentions having seen him, and Jean stiffens a little. But when François reappears in Jean‘s life — offering him a position at the new rugby scouting business he is launching — it is Marie’s turn to quail. Both pretend François’ return is no big deal, but already it has introduced notes of deception, evasion, and bravado into a relationship previously characterized by eye contact so direct that, in Gautier’s often uncomfortably massive close-ups that cut off chin and brow, it created almost tangible cords of connection.
The further fraying of those cords, as Jean’s late-night errands with François, become more frequent, and Marie rekindles an electric flirtation with her ex, is the main thrust of the film’s surprisingly straightforward narrative. The subplots are less coherent. Marcus (Issa Perica), Jean’s Black teenage son from a previous marriage, who is being raised by Jean’s mother Nelly (Bulle Ogier) adds Denis-trademark commentary on French racism that is frustratingly underdeveloped given its dramatic potential, even wasting Mati Diop in a minute cameo. Jean’s attempt to reconnect with Marcus leads to some rather inert dialogue scenes that feel like they could have been trimmed at the editing stage, if not cut out of a script that would be well-served by a spot of tightening. Similarly, the reasons for Jean’s incarceration are teased but never revealed, while the struggles he faces as an ex-con are covered off in a couple of scenes of bank-office paperwork and an argument about whether he should use Marie’s credit card, being unable to get one himself.
These curiously flat scenes are all but redundant anyway: This is Marie’s show. And Binoche’s Marie, while an asset to the film’s watchability, might also be the conundrum most crippling for its believability. Whatever about her being distracted by an obviously untrustworthy François when decent, devoted Jean is so much more appealing a prospect (and Lindon can break your heart a little with the sincerity he brings to a speech about why he likes to drive out to a particular supermarket to do the grocery shopping) — French love-triangles gonna French love-triangle, I guess. Even so, though, the intensity of her dilemma is severely undercut by how ultimately selfish it is. Marie never seems particularly interested in either man except for how they are interested in her and is revealed to be so self-centered in her pursuit of amours both fou and entirely rational, that she is far less likable than Binoche’s disingenuously bright-eyed and forthright performance can account for. There she is, sliding, as Stuart Staples croons crookedly as the credits roll, down both sides of the blade, but it’s hard to imagine and harder to care whether the dagger will actually find her heart. [B-]