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Three's A Crowd: The Ménage à Trois in Both Sides of the Blade

30 Aug 2022 | 5 MINS READ
Sophie Monks Kaufman

Sophie Monks Kaufmann explores the moral and existential labyrinth that is Claire Denis’ Both Sides of the Blade.

A thrilling aspect of mutual desire is the chance to feel brand new under a lover’s appreciative gaze.

A financially and professionally secure middle-aged woman is suddenly rocked by teenage passions. Although destabilising, this shocking sensation carries with it the opportunity to shake things up. Novelty, when someone is unsure about the same-old, same-old, can feel a lot like liberation.

This is the situation that 50-something radio host Sara (Juliette Binoche) encounters when her unemployed boyfriend Jean (Vincent Lindon) is headhunted for work by her ex: François (Grégoire Colin). Jean’s acceptance of François’s help, seemingly without suspicion of ulterior motive, is intriguing. It could stem from a weary fatalism, an unshakeable belief in his bond with Sara, or a greater preoccupation with his livelihood than with his relationship. Lindon does not tip his hand here, and the motive of his character is left open to viewer interpretation. 

Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

By contrast, Binoche plays Sara with a touching, almost childlike transparency. There is a long stretch of anticipation between her spying François in the street and their intimate reunion at a launch party for his new partnership with Jean. Binoche is filmed on the street watching her men through a window, not daring to go inside. Jean calls her and hands the phone to François. An eloquent professional woman regresses to fragmentary speech. ‘Mon amour, mon amour,’ she murmurs, her voice thick with longing. She sheds her skin and all expectations of sensible adult conduct. Binoche radiates the charms that lie in the chance to be raw. With François, she is reborn into basic pleasure. With Jean, she remains plausibly caring, focused on the pragmatics. She slips between different selves and doesn’t know which one she prefers. 

Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

In Anaïs Nin’s slim 1954 novel A Spy in the House of Love, Sabina has a string of affairs but always returns to her stalwart husband, Alan. That initial thrill of slipping off the cuffs of monogamy into a slinkier, tricksier, more multifaceted mode of being eventually morphs into an identity crisis. ‘She had lost herself somewhere along the frontier between her inventions, her stories, her fantasies and her true self,’ writes Nin. ‘The boundaries had become effaced, the tracks lost; she had walked into pure chaos, and not a chaos which carried her like the galloping of romantic riders in operas and legends, but which suddenly revealed the stage props: A papier-mache horse.’

This is the trajectory that Sara travels throughout Both Sides of the Blade: from desire cracking open the carapace of middle-class, middle-aged routines, to feeling totally lost in confusion. And, unlike Sabina, she has the added complication of each man knowing about that other, so that rather than having two beds as two spaces to bask in different sexual attentions, the spirit of the other man infuses his rival’s mind. 

Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

François and Jean maintain a cordial veneer despite the fact that they are competing for the same woman. François experiences desire as a rightful instinct and his pride is wounded when he doesn’t get to fulfil its specificities. In a hotel scene, he becomes sulky when Sara faces him during sex, rather than presenting her ass to him, as he wanted. His desire plays like an erotic fantasy. Jean is more hot-headed – passion, love and sex infuse each other so that Sara is always seen through the steam of amour. In the morning, while she is dopey and casual with sleep, he says goodbye with an astonished appreciation for her beauty. 

Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

Although Denis offers less information about François’s place in the world, she implies that his apparent urge to share his good fortune with Jean may not be all that it seems. What is stronger, his desire for Sara or his desire to settle an old score, is anyone's guess. He is governed by heightened, mercurial emotions and whatever he is experiencing in the present dominates anything expressed before. His desire tends towards the selfish, the teasing, the there-one-moment-gone-the-next.  

For Jean, hurt and jealousy give way to a worldly form of love. He can see Sara in her fullness. After a domestic showdown, Sara retreats to the bath. Jean comes through the bathroom door. He gives a speech that is as emotionally naked as she is physically. The hand he has been dealt – jail time, a struggling son, an errant ex-wife – has ripped from him pride and delusions and his appeal to Sara is simple. He doesn’t sell dreams, he respects life. He has not lost himself.

Sara listens in an exhausted stupor. Jean’s words in their spare loving power barely permeate her trance. Social convention would suggest that she’s had her fun, now please settle back down with the reliable man who really loves you. That is the expectation but it is not always the desire.

Desire is always revealing. People acting under its influence can seem mad to bystanders who covet their status and security. Yet how much does someone really want those things if they are willing to roll the dice again. It’s easy to pathologise a woman who seems to have it all, who loses it all based on the fumes of another man. Desire may pass, but while it flourishes it feels like the deepest truth going, rooted in some obscure part of our being that longs to emerge. Desire reveals Sara as a sensual beast for whom the instincts around love and sex make more sense than the coded behaviours of a socially responsible life. Denis and Binoche’s non-judgemental portrait of a lady shows that, for restless souls of all ages, there remains something inside wanting, wanting and wanting.

Both Sides of the Blade is in Cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 9 September

    

Sophie Monks Kaufman

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