Claire Denis ranks among the most accomplished filmmakers in the world. Juliette Binoche is an undisputed cinema icon. Both Sides of the Blade is their third collaboration (after High Life and Let the Sunshine In), but it’s one that will show up as a minor entry on both of their impressive resumes.
That’s not to say it’s embarrassing. With Binoche, Vincent Lindon (Titane), and Denis regular Grégoire Colin as the sides of a romantic triangle, the performances are top-notch, and both they and their surroundings are easy on the eyes. But the narrative is simplistic, and the character motivations can be puzzling.
Maybe that’s the point. Everything in the film is sparked by events more than a decade ago, events that we only learn about as Denis reveals them. At first, everything seems peachy. Sara (Binoche) and Jean (Lindon) are frolicking in the surf on vacation, enviably ecstatic. Shortly after they return home to Paris, Sara spots François on the street, an encounter that shakes her.
It turns out that, years ago, she left him for Jean and they haven’t seen each other since. Jean is a former rugby player, and François was both a friend and a fan to him, so he was double betrayed. Jean has spent time in prison (for what we never learn), and the mixed-race teenage son he had with a woman from Martinique lives with Jean’s mother. (She’s played by the marvelous Bulle Ogier, who we old-timers remember well from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Celine and Julie Go Boating, and other classics.)
Denis and co-writer Christine Angot parcel out this information in a frugal, onion-peeling manner. At first this draws you in, but after a while you wish they’d just let you know who’s who and what’s up. Shortly after Sara’s encounter, François contacts Jean about a job at the new agency he’s opening. (It takes another hour before it’s clear that this is an agency that scouts and represents rugby players.) This seems like an extreme coincidence, yet the movie gives you no reason to think it’s anything but. Even more perplexingly, Jean takes him up on the offer, apparently assuming all that emotional baggage won’t be a problem.
Reader, it is a problem. Before you can say menage a trois, Sara finds herself drawn back to François’s orbit. From there, the primary plot follows a well-traveled, though convincingly depicted, path.
The slivers of Sara and Jean’s lives outside this triangle that we’re given are tantalizing. Sara works as an interviewer for French public radio, and we see her discuss tragic world events with guests that you think might give her some perspective on her own troubles. But I guess love doesn’t work like that. And Jean’s relationship with his troubled son waves in the direction of a conversation about race and fatherhood, but never really pursues it.
Both Sides of the Blade, I think, does what it sets out to do: depict how our supposedly buried pasts can erupt in the blink of an eye and shatter our contented present. But by forcing us to tease out that past, it puts us in the same position as its characters: overwhelmed, adrift, and confused. (Opens Friday, July 22 at Living Room Theaters)
The title character in Clara Sola is, like Binoche’s Sara, a woman whose identity and destiny are determined by the people around her to an untenable degree. Beyond that, they have little in common. Middle-aged Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) lives with her mother, Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chavez) and her teenaged niece Maria (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) in a rural Costa Rican village. She suffers from apparent disabilities, both physical (a crooked spine) and intellectual (her strongest emotional tie is to her white mare Yuca).
Fresia refuses to authorize surgery that would correct her scoliosis, maybe because she thinks that doing so would negate the divine healing powers Clara ostensibly possesses, and which draw occasional cancer patients to their home. When the handsome young laborer Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón) arrives in town, he draws the attention of both Maria and Clara, who increasingly chafes and acts out against the restrictions, especially the sexual ones, that Fresia has imposed on her since, presumably, childhood.
What initially feels like a gritty examination of a grueling existence under the thumb of ignorance and religious fundamentalism gradually becomes something more lyrical and even mythical, trading social realism for magical realism as it goes along. Centering that process is the remarkable performance of Chinchilla Araya, who communicates Clara’s awkwardness as well as her fury through a stunningly physical performance, one that culminates in a jaw-dropping final scene.
This is the feature directing debut of Costa-Rican-born Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, whose background in physical theater and mime is evident in that lead performance. But equally evident is her interest in telling a human story of empowerment in an oppressively religious and patriarchal society. The fact that she (and her Colombian co-writer Maria Camila Arias) can do so while also capturing the rhythms of village life and the mysteries of nature bodes well for her future projects. (Opens Friday, July 15, at Regal Fox Tower).
The French director Bertrand Mandico’s latest phantasmagoria, After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is, excepting perhaps Phil Tippett’s Mad God, the most insane visual spectacle you’ll see all year. The story, which is largely irrelevant, concerns a mother-daughter duo on a quest to capture an escaped criminal named, for no apparent reason, Kate Bush. (And, of course, every time someone refers to her, they use her full name.) The setting is a planet called After Blue, where the survivors of Earth’s destruction (all of them women) have resettled.
The star, however, is Mandico’s production design and cinematic imagination. He, along with the Icelandic filmmaker Katrín Ólafsdóttir, is the author of the Incoherence Manifesto, a sort of Bizarro-World Dogme 95 that insists upon, for instance, entirely post-synched sound, no post-production special effects, and the use exclusively of color film (35mm, 16mm, and/or 8mm). Those rules lead to a face-melting barrage of visual spaghetti that’s truly amazing for about an hour.
The problem comes from some of Mandico’s other tenets of incoherence, which disdain things like screenplays and consistent performances. For a 127-minute movie, it’s not unfair to expect some sense of narrative momentum or protagonist identification. Ultimately, then, After Blue is more exhausting than enthralling, but if you’re in the right headspace to just go with its flow, it might very well change your life. (Screens on Friday, July 15, at the Hollywood Theatre.)