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No Exit (Huis Clos)

Both Sides of The Blade (Claire Denis, 2022, France)

by Juliana Costa

         Movies about mad love (or "amour fou", as the French, who understand the subject like no one else, like to say) are a case apart in the history of cinema. If in the classic American noir films it is a femme fatale who drags the hero to ruin, like the exemplary The Devil is a Woman (1935), by Josef von Sternberg, in the 1960s and 1970s it was couples who found the engine of their desire in self-destruction, like the self-explanatory L'Amour Fou (1969), by Jaques Rivette. Today, especially after the debates raised by contemporary feminism, part of the films about violence and passion places in the male figure the actions that lead love to degradation.

          In her new movie, Claire Denis, awarded best direction at the 72nd Berlin Film Festival in 2022, goes deeper in exploring these relationships. Both Sides of the Blade (Avec Amour et Acharnement, 2022) begins with Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) on the beach on a beautiful sunny day. Diaphanous images. The water transparency reveals the love of the mature, passionate couple. In contrast to this idyllic beginning there are the movie's other 110 minutes: lugubrious photography and many internal scenes in an apartment that gets smaller and smaller as the plot progresses. The suffocation of the bedroom. Not even the romanticism of the balconies of Paris can avoid catastrophe. This is the game that Denis plays from beginning to end: fracturing situations and scenes that could be considered romantic into the atmosphere of increasing horror, as if violence were constantly hidden in the gaps of love and care.

         The tension begins with the return of François (Grégoire Colin), Jean's ex-partner and Sara's ex-love, to the couple's life. But in the images something seems wrong even earlier. Denis is attentive to the faces, which always show us more than the dialogue. An atmosphere of suspense fills the spaces between the characters from the moment the couple arrives at the apartment. And the devil lives in the expectations. As in her last film, Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur, 2017) - also with Binoche, and the shiny brother of Both Sides of the Blade - love relationships are always insufficient in the face of expectations and desires.  A carnal camera, very close to the bodies, as only Denis could express, rubs us in the physical and emotional epidermis of the characters. François, the adventurer, returns, and Jean, the protector, feels his masculinity weakened, either by the archaic dispute with Sara, or by a nameless attraction for his partner, which Denis only lets us glimpse. It is the downfall of the frustrated, unemployed, middle-aged man who cannot even communicate with his teenage son from an early marriage. Not by chance, scenes of self-pity precede the explosions. And his fragility turns into violence, of course, against the body and spirit of Sara, a woman who dares to give herself over to the desire to explore the sexuality of her mature body, even if only momentarily, together with a love from the past.

         But Sara is not a victim of this man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Denis is amoral with her characters, who manifest their less noble feelings in a pornographic way for an accomplice camera. With her romantic expectations, the character collaborates with the atmosphere that is established. If Sara incessantly repeats "Mon amour, mon amour, mon amour" at the moment of pleasure, it seems more to prove to herself that the relationship with Jean can curb her desire for François. A desperate belief that marriage can save her from herself. Luckily for us, the desire of Denis' characters knows no boundaries, even if they have to throw their bodies against the imaginary walls of social conventions. More than a mad love, a love suffocated by the inability to love outside these four walls. Hell is other people.

May, 2023

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