A chance encounter, a glance in the right direction while flicking your hair, and it cannot be unseen: it is your former lover who you never thought you’d miss for years now. The art of actualizing desire even before it has manifested is one that French filmmaker Claire Denis has mastered to perfection. What’s become a trademark of her artistry is the deceptive simplicity which, when explored in depth, reveals agonizing ambiguity. It is in this state that we follow Sarah (Juliette Binoche) between her long-term partner Jean (Titane’s Vincent Lindon) and her former one François (Grégoire Colin), who was the one to bring the two of them in the first place. After all, how complicated can a French movie’s love triangle be?
Tempering our expectations, two features of Fire (or, Both Sides of the Blade, as it was screened at Berlin) already seem to make our minds up for us, even at first glance: firstly, that the film is based on a novel by Christine Anglot, who was also involved in the scripting Let the Sunshine In (2017), and secondly, that it stars La Binoche, the lead in the aforementioned film as well. One might argue that we don’t revel in a Claire Denis film for the sake of the story – and this is true even for the alluring sci-fi hyperboles of High Life – but the ineffable way the characters intermingle and disentangle from one another. The emotional overtones of Fire unfold with a plasticity that is both enchanting and misleadingly continuous.
In the plot, there are a lot of gaps – events are missing, motivations seem to be lacking, and oftentimes the characters float rather than make a conscious move towards one another – and the criticisms aimed at the narrative incoherence are mostly called for. The viewer is left to do their own re/construction work even if it’s made clear that François and Jean used to be best friends, until Sarah redistributed the power dynamics by ending her relationship with the former to start one with the latter. It’s also said that Jean has been in prison; we know he has a son – Marcus (Issa Perica) – and that he’s struggling to get back on his feet financially. Sarah, on the other hand, is a renowned radio journalist who presents and lives through all the tragedies of our present times. But these background details cannot account for what happens in the film itself, as it captures only a few days in wintertime Paris.
Fire works with love as a force of exquisite agony and immense, deep pleasure. It may be the first time in which Denis has worked with cinematographer Eric Gautier whose name appeared alongside that of Carax, Assayas, Breillat and more), but their collaboration has made out of the film’s visuals a paean of love and heartbreak. Jean and Sarah’s relationship has a sensuality magnified by the extreme close-ups and the constant coupling of them two in a frame for the most part of the film. The walls of the small Parisian apartment are bursting with love-drenched lust and so is the tight framing. As a respite or a place for dangerous loneliness, the balcony becomes an intersection for adulterous thoughts, spying, and separating oneself. The world is complete and intact only when the lovers are together.
Bordering on several clichés but never succumbing to them makes Fire a love story that is sumptuous and sharp at the same time. Even with Sarah being the crux of the relationship, the nuances conditioning her behavior account for the ambivalence shown. As in real life, people’s actions out of lust or past love rarely make sense and often defy cause and effect. Similarly here, the emotional tides navigate a stormy sea – Sarah being a sacrifice to restore the men’s flawed friendship, the double-crossing moves of François, even the abnegated masculinity which resurfaces in Jean – all these undercurrents are not talked about but feel all the more tangible. With a chemistry as combustible as that between Binoche and Lindon, none of this surprises. But the biggest impact of all is that tightrope walk of feelings the film finds its strength in – feeling for the people on screen, feeling with or in spite of them is what affirms the mystery of love should remain one, for lovers and viewers alike.
This review is from the 2022 Berlin Film Festival. IFC Films will release Fire in the U.S. later this year.