After having its premiere at Berlinale last month, Claire Denis’ Fire played as part of Film at Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series, granting New Yorkers a sneak peak of the film before its official U.S. release through IFC Films later this summer. Fire is Denis’ latest effort following her sci-fi English-language debut High Life, yet it feels distinctly French in its premise. Effectively following a tumultuous love triangle among middle-aged Parisians, Fire certainly typifies a Rendez-Vous of sorts—passionate and bursting with longing, it makes sense that the film’s Anglophone title evokes the heat of a forbidden liaison. However, there is palpable contention over the film’s title, with Denis herself remarking during her pre-show introduction, “The film is not called Fire!” Set to be named in English after the song “Both Sides of the Blade” that frequent Denis collaborator Tindersticks wrote for the film, it’s a mystery why such an apt title would be disregarded for something so singular and trite by comparison.
On a picturesque seaside getaway, Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) embrace and caress each other while floating in crystal clear water. The parameters of their relationship are unknown, yet an air of familiar affection envelops their encounter. We soon follow the pair back to a dreary Parisian winter, where they share a minimalistic apartment and domestic duties. It’s clear they have cultivated a life together over the course of many years, yet their interactions tease an enduring spark—though it soon becomes clear that this is merely the result of post-vacation endorphins. When Sara catches a glimpse of her ex-boyfriend François (Grégoire Colin)—who also happens to be Jean’s ex-best friend—during her morning commute one day, she immediately feels a rush of desire.
However, Sara isn’t the only one re-hashing connections with François. Jean, a retired professional rugby player and ex-con, is recruited by his former friend to work for his agency, scouting promising young rugby players. Jean’s proximity to François appears to only stoke the flame of temptation for Sara, who begins a romance that obviously threatens to destroy the domestic harmony she and Jean once shared. Conversely, it’s evident that Jean’s involvement with François has also led him astray from the duties of supporting a relationship, resulting in a dually dramatic dissolve.
Four years after gracing audiences with the striking and cerebral High Life, Denis has all but retreated back to her Gallic roots. Unabashedly French to its core, Fire at points feels all too predictable—an extramarital affair will wreak havoc on the cheater’s life if she’s exposed; she’s indecisive as to which relationship she should sacrifice—yet Denis manages to instill a masterful artistry to the otherwise formulaic plot. What could have so easily been a tepid, uninspired Francophone adultery drama instead showcases two stellar performers bouncing off of each other with manic perfection. An unflinching depiction of the follies intrinsic to unresolved yearning, Fire doesn’t necessarily portray any of its subjects in a positive light. Both Sara and Jean seem to carelessly throw away the fruits of a years-long domestic partnership due to the reemergence of a man they both previously renounced, with little reason aside from their unstated mutual boredom. After all, how long can the residual high from a temporary tropical escape last if both parties are so easily enticed by the allure of something new? François appears cartoonishly deceptive and generally flat in comparison, though this characterization feels appropriate when the central couple’s downfall was likely imminent even without his involvement. The confines of COVID-19 on set means that the intimacy of the story was baked-in from the start, allowing the director to focus the film’s entire scope on the messy intricacies of one relationship’s most sensitive issues. A capsule cast, off-hand remarks about characters grabbing a mask before leaving the house and allusions to work-related pandemic safety protocols root the film solidly in our current times, while still clearly abiding by on-set health standards. In turn, the small-scale production yields uniquely impassioned results, particularly when it comes to its pithy examination of the film’s central conflict.
It’s imperative to note that Denis’ study is only as strong as the actors which inhabit it, with Binoche and Lindon achieving the height of melodramatic audacity, hurling insults and ultimatums at the other with scorching energy. Their chemistry is kinetic—if fundamentally volatile—providing a physicality that is deeply erotic even in its most miserable moments. Sara soaking in a bath, breasts protruding above water, is contrasted with a limp offer of compromise from Jean. This exchange in particular casts their relationship with perceptible roles of dominator and subordinate, kinky even in its explicit discontent. While Fire does include tangents involving Jean’s emotionally neglected mixed-race son (issues of French racial identity being an enduring topic of intrigue for Denis) and Sara’s job as a radio personality, the narrative never strays far from the couple’s interactions, allowing Binoche and Lindon to truly occupy center stage.
Though it pales in comparison to the bold creativity of High Life, Fire is adroitly handled in Denis’ hands. A melodrama steeped in typically French ideas of sexual deception and personal passion, it still manages to find a freshness thoroughly conveyed by Binoche and Lindon’s involvement. Also able to subtly integrate the lasting societal effects of the pandemic, Fire is a tight investigation into the fragility of even our most coveted connections. The film justifies each and every shot, interplay and consequence—a deliciously despondent romance that strays drastically from Denis’ previous co-writing effort with Christine Angot (which similarly stars Binoche), 2017’s Let the Sunshine In. Two sides of the same coin, it’s as if Fire follows-up the lighthearted touch of the writing duo’s previous effort. As opposed to seeking the love she deserves by giving up sleeping with married men, Binoche’s character now succumbs to the temptation of an affair. In Denis’ oeuvre, women really can have it all—making it all the more powerful when one woman ends up losing it.
Director: Claire Denis
Writers: Christine Angot, Claire Denis
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, Grégoire Colin
Release Date: July 8, 2022
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan