Director Thomas Lawes is the proverbial one-man band on this modern silent movie. He has not only written, filmed, edited and composed the music, but is also visible playing the keyboards, guitars and drums of the synthwave score in split screen underneath the action, like a funky sign-language interpreter. It’s a kitsch formal quirk that initially adds a kind of distancing effect to this simple urban fable, but it quickly becomes invisible (presumably less so in screenings with live accompaniment).
Ella McLoughlin plays Amaryllis, a sullen, beanie-hatted skater girl living with her alcoholic mum (Liz May Brice). After breaking into a warehouse where waifish drug dealer Roach (Adam El Hagar) is doing business, she manages to worm her way into running errands for him. Taking a cut, she aims to save enough to move out and, as she scrawls in animated diary snippets, “not have to see my stupid fucking bitch mother EVER AGAIN!” But as Roach takes to pulling up at her door in his flame-emblazoned camper van, Amaryllis begins to fall for the doe-eyed pusher.
Propelled by Lawes’ music, Amaryllis’s drug-running missions have a picaresque rush as she skates around town; the fresh-faced McLoughlin, with no dialogue to lean on, is expressive without turning the film into an extended charades session. But Lawes’ split-screen gimmick isn’t really innovative – apart from one moment when a rapper in the main action threatens to beat-box his way across the diegetic divide – and only adds a minor boost to a teen photostory with little to surprise. The romantic Cornish surfing interlude is particularly cheesy, and there are some clunky workarounds, like dialogue scrawled on bits of paper held up to windows. In the end this is a better advert for Lawes’s composing than his storytelling.
Call it the original triangle of sadness. As much as the mores and taboos of screen romance have shifted over the decades, the love triangle has remained a constant: a problem that screenwriters rarely manage to solve without someone being hurt or worse. Ménage à trois solutions are rare; heteronormative coupledom must usually prevail. And yet our fascination endures with the simultaneously simple and wildly complicated crisis of loving two people at once – rarely depicted with more adult candour than in Claire Denis’s new drama Both Sides of the Blade, now streaming on Mubi.
The story is slender but urgent: radio presenter Sara (Juliette Binoche) is happy in her 10-year marriage to former rugby player Jean (Vincent Lindon) until a chance sighting of her estranged ex François (Grégoire Colin) knocks her sideways, bringing unresolved feelings and suppressed discontent to the surface. What many would film as a soap opera is instead treated by tough-minded sensualist Denis as a study in emotional violence, fearlessly acted by the principals. You don’t especially root for any one side of the romance so much as hope they all make it out alive.
French cinema, naturally, has perfected the form, whether treating lovers as chess pieces in Max Ophüls’s glorious The Earrings of Madame de… (1953), a lavish belle epoque carousel of hearts that loves the game more than it does the players, or stripping things back to the frank New Wave modernity of François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), where the vibrant, free-thinking Jeanne Moreau ostensibly comes between two male pals, though it’d be more accurate to say she’s the locus of their friendship.