Claire Denis’s BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE

Reviewed for www.cinefile.info:

Claire Denis’s BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE (France)

Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes

BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE is lots of things at once, many of them contradictory: it’s a quintessential Claire Denis film that doesn’t look much like her previous work, a romantic melodrama that unfolds like a thriller, and a singularly upsetting experience that stands as one of the finest movies of 2022. It’s also a potent examination of the theme of “the past coming back,” which makes it a kissing cousin of such otherwise disparate films as Jacques Tourneur’s OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and David Cronenberg’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005). In all three movies, the protagonists’ lives are turned upside down by the unexpected re-appearance of someone they used to know, whose return forces them not just to deal with unresolved issues but to regress into the people they used to be, whether they like it or not. In Denis’s film, Sara (Juliette Binoche) is a radio host in a seemingly idyllic nine-year relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Jean (Vincent Lindon), an unemployed ex-rugby player and ex-con. A wordless six-minute introductory scene shows the lovers frolicking at the beach before returning home and making love, a bravura sequence that recalls the wordless montage that begins Eric Rohmer’s A TALE OF WINTER (1992). This picturesque depiction of blissful couplehood, however, is undercut by the ominous rumble of low strings on the soundtrack, which give way to the haunting sound of minor chords being plucked on an acoustic guitar (the superb score is, of course, by the Tindersticks). Shortly afterwards, Sara spies her ex-lover—and Jean’s old friend—Francois (Gregoire Colin), in the street for the first time in years, and the very sight of him causes her to convulse with emotion. As Sara and Francois resume their affair, Denis and co-screenwriter Christine Angot (on whose novel the film is based) gradually, masterfully dole out information that fleshes out the backstories of the three main characters while some narrative details remain tantalizingly vague (e.g. the reason Jean went to prison is never explained). For long stretches, the cinematic language of BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE feels more conventional than in Denis’s other films, probably so she can put the focus squarely on the anguished emotions—especially in two extended verbal arguments between Sara and Jean, the Cassavettesian emotional rawness of which gives two of the world’s greatest actors some of their most indelible onscreen moments. This makes all the more effective the few “poetic” touches more typical of Denis that are shrewdly sprinkled throughout the movie: the first reunion scene between Sara and Francois, for instance, is full of dreamy close-ups and sensual camera moves reminiscent of FRIDAY NIGHT (2002), although here they are fittingly played in a more sinister register. The earlier film celebrates a guilt-free one-night stand between two strangers who come together by chance; the newer one shows how desire, when intertwined with guilt and lies, can tear apart two people who ostensibly know each other well. BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE is a searing portrait of middle-aged intimacy made by a woman old and wise enough to know that love can sometimes be a motherfucker. (2022, 116 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Rear Window (Hitchcock) – A+
2. North By Northwest (Hitchcock) – A
3. Devil in a Blue Dress (Franklin) – A-
4. Both Sides of the Blade (Denis) – A
5. Out of the Past (Tourneur) – A+
6. Citizen Kane (Welles) – A+
7. The Great Muppet Caper (Henson) – B+
8. The Lady Eve (Sturges) – A+
9. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene) – A+
10. Colorado Territory (Walsh) – A


July RELATIVE Screenings in Chicago

7.09.22: RELATIVE will screen at Chicago Filmmakers in Edgewater on Saturday, July 9 at 7pm, followed by a Q&A with me and actress Elizabeth Stam, moderated by critic Cati Glidewell (The Blonde in Front). For tickets to this screening, visit here.

7.17.22: 
RELATIVE will screen at the New 400 in Rogers Park on Sunday, July 17 at 3pm, followed by a Q&A with me and actresses Emily Lape and Heather Chrisler, moderated by critic Don Shanahan (https://www.everymoviehasalesson.com/) and a walking tour of some of the film’s locations. A portion of the proceeds will benefit P.O. Box Collective. For tickets to this screening, visit here.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene) – A+
2. Our Hospitality (Keaton) – A+
3. High Sierra (Walsh) – A
4. Crimes of the Future* (Cronenberg) – A-
5. Code of the Freaks* (Chasnoff) – B
6. Drinking Buddies* (Swanberg) – B+
7. Benediction* (Davies) – A-
8. Both Sides of the Blade* (Denis) – A
9. Jack* (Coppola) – D+
10. Good Time (Safdie/Safdie) – A-

* – First-time watch


Salome Chasnoff’s CODE OF THE FREAKS

Reviewed for Cinefile Chicago:

Salome Chasnoff’s CODE OF THE FREAKS (US/Documentary)

Gene Siskel Film Center – Tuesday, 8pm

Chicago-based filmmaker Salome Chasnoff and writer-interviewees Susan Nussbaum, Alyson Patsavas, and Carrie Sandah did the world a favor by creating this breezy and informative 69-minute documentary about the depiction—and frequent misrepresentation—of people with physical and/or mental disabilities in narrative cinema. Utilizing film clips spanning nearly 100 years, from Robert Wiene’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in 1920 through to Hollywood movies in the 21st century, CODE OF THE FREAKS provides a welcome corrective to the myriad, dangerous distortions and falsehoods offered by depictions of the differently abled in cinema‚ almost none of which were made by filmmakers who were actually disabled themselves. The most provocative aspect of CODE OF THE FREAKS (the title of which affectionately nods to Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece FREAKS) may be the way it illustrates how narrative cinema’s need for traditional “resolution” does a particular disservice to stories centering on disabled characters by providing the same few tidy endings over and over again (i.e., the “miracle cure,” death, and institutionalization). But, in spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, most of the disabled artists and activists interviewed for Chasnoff’s camera come across as witty and good-humored, and the director herself gets a surprising amount of comic mileage out of the way she juxtaposes these interview clips with relevant film scenes (a case in point: disability advocate Candace Coleman’s balking at the subtext of M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE followed by a shot from that movie where Samuel L. Jackson’s character says “No!” half a dozen times). Even better is the way Chasnoff creates clever montages incorporating a range of different films about disability in order to show how pervasive some of the most unfortunate tropes are (e.g., the way a disabled character’s highest function seems to be to serve merely as an inspiration for non-disabled characters; or the absurd frequency of scenes in which blind men are able to successfully drive cars as a means of reclaiming the masculinity that disability has otherwise threatened to take away from them). Screening as part of the Midwest Film Festival. The event will begin at 7pm with a social hour, followed by an 8pm screening and a Q&A with Chasnoff and members of the production team. (2020, 69 minutes, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]


Why Michael Glover Smith’s “Relative” is One of the Year’s Best Films

The first review of RELATIVE has appeared. Here’s Matt Fagerholm, who will be moderating the Q&A following the film’s Music Box Theatre screening on June 8, writing at his great Indie Outlook site:

Indie Outlook

I often refer to writer/director Michael Glover Smith’s 2015 debut feature “Cool Apocalypse” as the Windy City’s answer to “Manhattan,” albeit without the creep factor. There is a sequence in which a weary couple, long past the peak of their relationship, cruise down Lake Shore Drive to reflect on all the memories that the iconic Chicago highway evokes. The black and white photography melds beautifully with Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s classic tune named after the street, which fuses with the city’s skyline just as “Rhapsody in Blue” did with the Big Apple. Juxtaposed against this couple is a tale of budding romance between two starry-eyed souls who might as well be the older lovers at an earlier time in their lives. Late in the film, the uneasy tension between the foursome is broken by the young woman, who performs an impromptu number out of left field that is the very definition…

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The RELATIVE trailer has arrived!

The Film Stage has posted the exclusive trailer for RELATIVE! Cut by the master Eric Marsh, it features virtually every member of our large ensemble cast. The beautiful song in the background is “Rush” by King of the Sea (Trev Gibb). There are also links to where you can buy tix for our upcoming screenings at the Music Box Theatre and Gene Siskel Film Center in Jordan Raup’s accompanying article. Check it out here. Updated theatrical bookings and other information can be found on the film’s official website: www.relativemovie.com.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Days of Heaven (Malick) – A+
2. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong) – A
3. Days of Heaven (Malick) – A+
4. The Black Watch* (Ford) – B
5. Chungking Express (Wong) – A
6. Breathless (Godard) – A
7. Lost Highway (Lynch) – A-
8. Failan (Song) – A
9. Lost Highway (Lynch) – A-
10. Days of Heaven (Malick) – A+

* – first-time watch


Wong Kar-Wai’s THE GRANDMASTER


I didn’t have the chance to post this last Friday, when it first appeared at http://www.cinefile.info, as I was traveling. But I’m proud of this review I wrote about the 130-minute cut of Wong Kar-Wai’s underrated THE GRANDMASTER, which screened at Doc Films.

Wong Kar-wai’s THE GRANDMASTER (Hong Kong/China)

Doc Films (at the University of Chicago) – Friday, 7pm

While Wong Kar-wai has been a darling of Western critics and cinephiles for much of his career, his movies have been regarded as arty and pretentious specialty items back home in Hong Kong. The reversal of this trend with THE GRANDMASTER may be explained by its China-centric qualities, namely its deep exploration of Chinese identity and history and the philosophical side of kung-fu. Western critics lamented the film’s “patchwork” quality (it is certainly the most elliptical thing Wong has ever made), and they have a point. But to paraphrase something André Bazin wrote about THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, THE GRANDMASTER’s narrative awkwardness is the price Wong pays for something more important; for, while it may not be as “perfect” as beloved earlier films like CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994) or IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000), its thematic richness makes it more profound than either. THE GRANDMASTER definitely seems like the digest of a much longer movie: the plot unfolds as a series of self-contained vignettes in the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, charismatic as ever), a real kung-fu master who immigrated from southern mainland China to Hong Kong in the mid-20th century, single-handedly popularized the minimalistic fighting style known as Wing Chun, and became Bruce Lee’s first teacher (yes, an adorable moppet turns up as young Bruce in the final scene). Each scene feels like a narrative block that has been separated from the ones that precede and follow it by several years, sometimes with only intertitles supplying crucial missing information. Characters who seem like they will be important (like Ip’s wife and a mysterious barber/martial artist known as “Razor,” played by Song Hye-kyo and Chang Chen, respectively) pop up for a scene or two, make a big impression, then vanish for the rest of the movie. The second most important character is Gong Er (an excellent Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a kung-fu master from the North, who, in a parallel narrative, attempts to avenge her father’s murder and shares feelings of mutually unrequited love with Ip. Unrequited love has long been a pet theme of Wong’s, but the characters’ emotions here, however moving, are not the film’s reason for being. They are instead the byproducts of a fascinating allegory about the paths different Chinese people took in dealing with social upheaval and adapting to exile during a specific period in history. Wong has always been concerned with preserving the past, and the importance of preserving the past becomes the explicit theme of THE GRANDMASTER, as Wong uses kung-fu as a metaphor for Chinese culture in general—the “grandmaster” Ip is a teacher who passes along traditions and thus allows his cultural heritage to perpetuate. One of the most important scenes shows how Gong Er’s father, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), is incapable of teaching his traitorous disciple, Ma San (Zhang Jin), a particular kung-fu move that involves the act of “looking back.” Ma San soon colludes with occupying Japanese forces and thus symbolizes disrespect of tradition and sacrifice of one’s integrity in order to survive. Gong Yutian informs Ma San that he will never attain the highest level of martial arts—the ability to “see humanity,” which follows “seeing oneself” and “seeing the world.” By contrast, Ip and Gong Er are able to maintain their ideals and live in exile in Hong Kong—although their differing philosophies ensure that they meet different destinies. Gong Er betrays her father’s wish in seeking vengeance for his death and allows herself to become mired in pessimism and opium addiction. Ip, however, has the ability to look forward and backward simultaneously; his essential optimism—even in the face of overwhelming suffering (two of his daughters starve to death, and he and his wife are separated from each other against their wishes)—ensures that he alone among the film’s characters is able to “see humanity,” and that his Wing Chun school in Hong Kong will flourish. The final scenes are among the most mature that Wong has created. The action was choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping, and part of the fun of watching these characters fight is seeing how their personalities are expressed through different fighting styles: the clever and humble Ip’s brand of Wing Chun is based on the precise execution of a few effective blows, while the more petulant Gong Er is the last remaining practitioner of the maximalist style known as “64 hands.” Wong, working with his longtime editor (and production/costume designer) William Chang, as well as collaborating for the first time with cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd, breaks with martial-arts movie tradition by capturing the fights not with long takes and wide shots but by using close-ups, varying film speeds, fast cuts, and a shallow depth of field. (This last aspect has the effect of turning everything in front of the camera lens—drops of water, icicles, Zhang Ziyi’s porcelain skin—into a fetish object.) The breathtaking visuals, aided by bone-crunching sound effects, make each fight—especially the instant classic train-station climax involving Gong Er and Ma San—a master class in filmmaking. Screening as part of Doc’s Friday series: In the Mood for Wong Kar-wai. Note: There are three different versions of THE GRANDMASTER. The version playing at Doc Films, the domestic Chinese cut, is the longest, running 22 minutes longer than the version released in the U.S. by the Weinstein Company in 2013. (2013, 130 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]


RELATIVE at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival

RELATIVE will screen twice at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival this weekend: on Friday, April 22 at the Phoenix Theatre at 4:15pm and on Sunday, April 24 at the Five Flags Majestic at 1:30pm. I will be in attendance at both screenings along with actresses Emily Lape and Elizabeth Stam and producer Aaron Wertheimer. You can buy tickets on the festival’s website here.

To promote these screenings, I’ve done a couple of new interviews: One with Bennett Glace at Split Tooth Media, a deep (but spoiler-free) dive into the film that you can read here. And another, more lighthearted one, with Emily Lape for the CinemaJaw podcast, which you can listen to here.


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