Claire Denis presents complex, astute character-driven drama in Fire (Both Sides of the Blade), a French drama starring Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon as a couple trapped in an emotionally fraught love triangle. The slow-burning piece puts a strong female-protagonist in the centre, embodied with rich conviction by the ever-fantastic Binoche.
Denis directs based on a screenplay which she co-writes with Christine Angot, capturing the gradual emotional pressure which builds between couple Sara (Binoche) and John (Lindon) as Sara’s former-boyfriend and John’s former business partner François (Grégoire Colin) makes his way back into their lives. Haunted by his past as an ex-con and challenged by trying to fit into his estranged son’s life, John is further plagued by fears of losing his wife.
Denis and Angot carefully obscure much of the backstory surrounding the characters, with details slowly revealed as the narrative progresses. Opening with a romantic beach-set vacation capturing the spark between Sara and John – the couple appear to have a perfect bond – before events shift to wintery Paris. As Sara is travelling to her work, she is filled with shock at seeing François, with a overwhelming emotional nostalgia rising to the surface. At this point, their connection is not clear with Denis unveiling more as events proceed. Slight breadcrumbs of backstory are interspersed, building a picture of the complex dynamic between the trio with John attempting to have a working relationship with François, whilst Sara intentionally tries to avoid contact with him, knowing the allure will re-open unsettled romantic feelings.
This notion of unfulfilled romance is one beautifully exemplified in the complex psychology of Binoche’s protagonist. Battling the sentiment of love and commitment to John, but drawn by the magnetism and excess of romantic chemistry with François. Fire delivers an authentic and captivating take on female sexuality as Sara navigates the dual feelings of agony and pleasure – torn with indecision. There is also a boldness when it comes to the depiction of sensuality, with Denis refreshingly unflinching in her presentation of the bodies and erotic connections between fifty and sixty-somethings.
Denis and Angot’s narrative is somewhat light on dialogue, with the silence between Sara and John speaking volumes. A struggle to communicate between the pair results in a tense silent wall forming between them – John and Sara unable to express themselves openly and their inner conflicts truly. There is some complex character work infused in London’s role as the absent father attempting to form a bond with his distant son, whilst also trying to get his life back on track career wise after a prison stint. This is furthered by additional conflict in wanting to stand by Sara, but being pushed away by her inability to distance herself from François.
Eric Gautier’s cinematography explores an incredibly natural take on urban Paris, languorous shots of residential abodes and naturally lit outdoor spaces, give the film an authentic and naturalistic style – befitting of this tale.
Quietly absorbing, the jagged emotional dynamics and the complex inner character workings on display in Fire shine. Albeit in need of shortening its runtime by fifteen or so minutes, Denis has crafted an impressive showcase for the talent of her two leads with Binoche dazzling in particular.