A white woman living in a post-colonial African country refuses to abandon her family’s coffee plantation even as civil war brews around her. A derelict spaceship full of criminals sails across the stars towards a black hole, adrift between their histories on Earth and the oblivion that awaits them in the cosmos. A former officer in the French Foreign Legion remembers his time stationed in Djibouti, where his men lost themselves in the desert (and each other) while preparing for a fight that never came.
The people in Claire Denis movies are seldom in a hurry, but they’re often out of time. They’re drawn and quartered between the soft flesh of memory and the acrid metal of waking life — pulled apart by an artist whose films are as fluid as memories, and yet also mesmerized by the violence of inflexible social constructs that separate people against each other and themselves. Her debut feature “Chocolat” (1988) ends with a Cameroon-raised white woman named France being told that a “horizon” cuts between now and then, white and Black, colonizer and colonized — invisible lines that are nevertheless impossible to pass. More than 30 years later, Denis is still haunted by the danger of those boundaries, and the self-immolating harm that can result when the mind lures people across borders the body isn’t allowed to cross. No wonder she couldn’t resist the appeal of making a COVID film.
“Fire,” or “Both Sides of the Blade,” as it’s being called outside of the United States, is hardly the first time Denis has depicted middle-class domesticity with the same raw animalism that often compels her towards more exotic settings (e.g. cannibalistic vampire covens, interstellar masturbation booths), but it’s been a while since one of her “normal” movies was so angry or implosive. Absent the effervescent self-discovery and dashes of ecstasy that defined Denis’ previous collaboration with “Let the Sunshine in” writer Christine Angot — that one had an “At Last” needle drop for the ages, this one leans on a queasy Tindersticks score and the occasional sound of barking dogs — her latest film is a slow-burn chamber drama that adheres to the geometry of its not-so-bizarre love triangle between a married woman, her ex-con husband, and the dashing entrepreneur she once left in order to be with him.
Each of these characters has a different angle, all of them so impossibly acute and obtuse at the same time that the math soon fails to add up. It happens imperceptibly at first, as sparks harden into embers. Old torches are rekindled. Lives are singed at both ends. Juliette Binoche has the single most consequential Genius Bar visit in cinema history. As is often the case with Denis’ films, “Fire” grows more illuminating as it gets hotter; what starts like a constrained and unusually jagged French drama is eventually forged into an incendiary portrait of three people who — to varying degrees — all delude themselves into thinking that the past is possible to quarantine away from the present.
Binoche, earthy and exposed as ever, stars as a radio journalist named Sara. We first see her lovingly splashing around in clear blue ocean waters with her husband Jean (tender/gruff “Titane” star Vincent Lindon), still looking for work after being released from prison some time ago, and it’s only after the movie docks in the Parisian flat where most of it will take place that Sara becomes unmoored. A single errant glimpse of her ex-boyfriend François (Grégoire Colin) and his much younger new girlfriend (dearly missed “Bastards” actress Lola Créton in a wordless cameo) is enough to make Sara feel seasick. “Here we go again,” she will think to herself later. “Love, fear, sleepless nights, the phone on my bedside, getting wet.”
It’s a problem that Sara can’t keep her mind in the present, but it’s an even greater problem that Jean assumes that his wife is perfectly capable of extricating herself from the past. Jean was friends with François before the former’s stint in jail — that’s how everyone knows each other — and he doesn’t hesitate when François offers him an opportunity to start a new business together. That was then, and this is now; what harm could possibly result from layering one back on top of the other? If Sara is in a melodrama and François an erotic romance, Jean has deluded himself into thinking that he isn’t in a movie at all. Over time, the sliding glass door that leads to the balcony of Sara and Jean’s apartment (Sara’s apartment, really) gradually seems to become thicker, just as the granite column that spikes up through the living room appears to grow wider with every scene.
Denis’ framing, casual but feverish, calls frequent attention to such separations — to the fact that even the most intimately shared spaces are often criss-crossed with divisions that people only notice once they can’t see anything else. The writing does too, in less elegant fashion. The occasional glimpses we get into Sara’s work are pointed in the extreme (they include an interview with a Lebanese intellectual who suggests that the country’s war-addled youth will leave their homeland and never look back, and another that name-checks Frantz Fanon as part of a conversation about the psychiatry of racism), but less irksome for their lack of subtlety than for seeming incomplete.
Also a bit undercooked, if more central to the story, is the subplot about the son Jean had with his absent first wife. An effectively parentless Black teenager who lives with Jean’s mother (Bulle Ogier) and is on the verge of being expelled from school, Marcus (Issa Perica) has never had anyone to raise him against the gravity of French society’s racist expectations. The character remains on the periphery of Denis’ film, but he sticks around long enough to receive a blinkered lecture from his dad about how he should just ignore “the discourse” and all of its attendant “therefores” and blaze his own trail instead, as if everyone who needs a leg up can just marry Juliette Binoche and start a new life as a kept man. Jean is a decent man, and Lindon beautifully captures his crumbling stoicism, but his willful inability to see over the horizon allows him to ignore what’s on the other side — even when his son is being pulled apart, and his wife is straddling two lives at once.
Carrying an impeccable cast full of Denis veterans who surely leapt at the chance to make something during the pandemic standstill (“Fire” was shot in early 2021, masks and COVID checks abound without mention), Binoche spirals deeper into Sara’s hungry skin with the self-doubt of someone who’s just realized that she’s been lying to herself for decades on end. It’s as if the futility of COVID lockdown measures, however many lives they saved, gave her permission to accept that her being couldn’t be contained by a social institution like marriage.
She remembers François as “the one who leaves,” but it seems he took a part of her with him. Perhaps reclaiming it now is selfish — early scenes position Sara as a stir-crazy horror villain, Binoche’s face squeezed into the bathroom door frame like she’s Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” — but “Fire” gradually begins to suggest that it might be liberating as well. Her freeform imagination inflamed by the social immobility of the pandemic, Denis creates a contained backdraft of a film that’s as volatile and untamed as an inferno. In the director’s tactile and typically non-prescriptive way, “Fire” wonders if a single spark might be strong enough to fuse the past and present together and light a new way forward.
“Fire” premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. IFC Films will release it in the United States later this year.
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