In the director Claire Denis’s latest film, Sara (played by Juliette Binoche) is heading to work one day when she spots her former lover, Francois, on his motorcycle. At first, she panics—then plays it cool. But the old obsession returns, and becomes all-consuming. Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade, which is now in theaters, watches as Binoche’s relationship with her mild-mannered, live-in boyfriend, Jean (Vincent Lindon), shows the strain of this smoldering ghost from the past. Meanwhile, Jean gets drawn into a business deal with Francois (Gregoire Colin), who’s also his old friend.
The very first scene shows Sara and Jean embracing in sunny, postcard-perfect ocean waters. But as the movie goes on, that idyll feels more and more distant. Both Sides of the Blade has a kind of romantic realism that shares a confessional, fretful quality (like another Denis-Binoche pairing, Let the Sunshine In), along with the menace that looms over some of her other films. Denis embraces the fluidity and fragility of feeling with her co-writer, Christine Angot, known for her autobiographical novels. There’s seduction here, but the movie’s not offering an escapist fling—there’s also confusion, denial, fear, hurt. It’s a potent reunion of Denis’s past actors, bringing together Binoche, Lindon (good as ever as a rugged, vulnerable, nice guy), and Colin, who’s worked with Denis since age 16 and gave us the hall-of-fame French legionnaire of Beau Travail.
I interviewed Denis—who spoke in her usual disarming, deliberate manner, as if recalling a dream—on a sunny April day while she was in New York City for the Lincoln Center series Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, where Both Sides of the Blade screened and where she also did a talk with Jim Jarmusch (Denis was assistant director on his 1986 film, Down by Law). Since then, she premiered another film, Stars at Noon—an adaptation of the ferocious Denis Johnson novel—and won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Below, the filmmaker talks about the emotional depths of Both Sides of the Blade, the openness she feels when working with her co-writer, and how Robert Pattinson fits into all of it.
The way this love from the past comes back to haunt Sara, it’s almost like a phantom taking over, isn’t it?
Yeah, a phantom—she had a very, very balanced way of living with Jean, and suddenly, she realized maybe something is deeply missing. As if the ending of that love affair was marked in her forever. It’s as if she wants to make sure that there is nothing left [from that attraction]. It’s crazy, but that’s the kind of thing that happens with love.
She becomes obsessed, and yet early on, when she has a chance to see Francois at a party, she’s so nervous that she can only call him from outside in the street.
I like that she pretends Jean told her not to come—it’s crazy. You know, you spoke about amour fou—I always remember [the 1969 movie] L’Amour fou: it’s a fight [between] two people who are not balanced. Jacques Rivette pretended he took it from [the relationship between] Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. I don’t know if it’s true.
The arguments in your movie feel so real, because they get the rhythms of an argument—which don’t always make sense. It can stop, it can start up, it can be quiet...
Yeah. Juliette told me, “I wish we could shoot it in one night. I don’t want to stop one day, do another day...” We were really exhausted. I was crying too, you know?
There’s something newly intimate about your work with Christine Angot.
Oh, Christine—I never worked with someone like her. She’s very special. She’s very tense with her own writing. She’s working with a machine gun, with her words. Most of her writing is about herself, but we share many things, and we talk about our own lives while writing scripts. The process is not therapy, but we go deep really easily. She’s terribly anxious, and I am too. So in the end, it makes us laugh about ourselves.
You told me once that you were laughing while writing Let the Sunshine In with her.
Oh, we were laughing all the time! Because my producer had proposed that I adapt Fragments by Barthes [A Lover’s Discourse]. And we started laughing because for me, it was all so much related to when I was 19 or 20: it’s about expecting, wanting more, being deceived, and waiting and waiting and waiting. I thought there was freedom in working with Christine on a “fragment” of our own. It’s true that all the male characters are a bit of a caricature.
How did Both Sides of the Blade come together?
I had been waiting almost three years to shoot another project, Stars at Noon. But Robert [Pattinson] was in The Batman in London, and of course he couldn’t leave [to be in Stars at Noon]. I was waiting and waiting, and in a way, already knowing that they would not let him go for a long time. And Vincent [Lindon] called me and said “How are you?” because we were all confined in the first summer of Covid. I said, It’s okay, but just like everybody, it’s hard not to work, and to wait. And to read and to cook... So he said, “Why don’t we try to shoot something immediately?” He had never worked with Juliette before. I had a project with Christine Angot, but it takes place in Seoul and I knew there was nothing I could do because of Covid.
Yeah, it was a project that could be sort of an answer to Hong Sang-soo [the prolific Korean director who makes movies full of romantic entanglements]. And so [instead,] we took a plot from one of Christine’s novels. It’s an autobiographical novel, and she explains what she felt when she met an ex-lover. We decided to write in haste, and we had to stay at home so we were on the phone. And Vincent and Julia liked it. We did the film with very little money and tried to keep it very small. In a way, it helped us to do it fast. It helped us to go deep into the fight, the heart, the pain. I remember at the end, I was stunned, and we all were like, wow. Not “wow” that we have done something great—but wow, we have been through a real moment.
There’s an added layer, too, because you have worked in the past with Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, and of course Gregoire Colin—who’s like an homme fatal here.
I remember when Gregoire’s first child was born—a girl—I was editing White Material. He came to the editing room with the baby, and he said, you’re a grandmother! I cherish him. He still belongs to me. Forever. You know, I say, “Whatever you say, you’re mine.”