Claire Denis’ latest film will be presented as Fire. The actual title, according to the filmmaker, is taken from the name of the Tindersticks track that plays over the end credits: ‘Both Sides of the Blade’. This is an intriguing title and one which elegantly evokes the French master’s tale of infidelity. Sara (Juliette Binoche) exists at the tip of the knife, doomed to slide down the blade regardless of what she chooses. It’s indicative of what we typically get to see that my predominant thought during the film was the maturity on display. This is evident in the actor’s performances and in the construction of the film itself. Denis and screenwriter Christine Angot have produced something novelistic in scope and cinematic in execution.
The film opens in an idyll. Sara and Jean (Vincent Lindon) swim in the sea, embracing one another closely. Immediately established is the state of their relationship. Moreover, the first subtitled piece of dialogue occurs roughly six minutes into the runtime. Over this period, we likewise witness Sara and Jean returning home, a return to normality. That first bit of dialogue occurs over the phone. Jean receives a call from his mother (Bulle Ogier) during which they discuss Marcus (Issa Perica). At this point, we know nothing further. Much of the film proceeds in this manner. Jean spends a lot of time on the phone, though he isn’t always forthcoming about with whom. An atmosphere is building. Their flat feels chronically underlit and cramped.
Sara is a radio host. One day, on her way into the office, she is stopped in her tracks by a face. A man gets on his motorcycle and flies away. Later, she informs Jean that she’s seen François (Grégoire Colin). The scene is elegant. Jean clams up and is clearly wary. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Sara is more open, but the sense of tension remains.
We later learn that she and François were once together, Jean being a mutual friend. François then becomes a structural absence. He doesn’t appear again for some time. On her way into work, we see Sara hanging around where she previously saw him. The motorcycle isn’t there. Despite his absence, the film swirls around the traces of his presence. He reaches out to Jean with a proposition to go into business together; they will scout junior rugby players for the major clubs. We learn more about Jean’s career in the sport. François is reintroduced into their world.
If this was all the film had going on, it would be as predictable as it sounds. Fortunately, Fire is allowed to breathe enough to encompass more than just these three characters. The most persistent thread is Jean’s family. We are eventually introduced to his mother, Nelly, and Marcus, who we learn is his son. Jean, having spent a stint in prison, left Marcus in Nelly’s custody. Very little is offered about Jean’s past, other than that he has a record. There’s a brief suggestion that he went to prison instead of François, but this is allowed to stay in the past. In the present, Marcus is facing expulsion from school. This slowly brings Jean back into his life.
This works, in part, because it’s not simply working towards easy reconciliation. Life is hard. The pervasive atmosphere is of coming to the end of one’s tether. This again recalls that sense of maturity. The sense is of watching excellent performers play real people. Much is suggested about these individuals without ever making anything but the action of the film explicit. Life weighs on everyone we see.
While Fire is expertly crafted, it nonetheless treads familiar ground. Sara reconnects with François. A few of the scenes they share take place in daylight exteriors, which is noticeable when compared to the dimly lit interiors of the flat shared by Sara and Jean. The sexuality is frank and unadorned, never shying away from the reality of middle-aged bodies. Claire Denis won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlinale. While this is well deserved, Denis isn’t doing anything here that she hasn’t been refining throughout her career. Nonetheless, you’re unlikely to see a film more mature, more finely crafted in the cinemas any time soon.