Fire begins with Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) swimming in the ocean together. It’s a perfect sun-dappled scene, alive with intimacy and joy, yet the soundtrack is filled with storms and deep, ominous strings. The tumultuous arrival those sounds foretell is of François (Grégoire Colin) — Sara’s former lover, Jean’s former business partner and the man who unintentionally brought them together. From the first glance Sara shoots in his direction, it seems just as likely that he will be the one to tear them apart.
Claire Denis’ latest is a confined drama, shot during heavy COVID-19 restrictions, which uses those limitations to strike the set of anything even remotely superfluous. Fire concerns just a handful of characters and takes place at just a handful of locations, primarily the Paris apartment owned by Sara and the suburban home of Jean’s mother, Nelly (Bulle Ogier), where his teenage son Marcus (Issa Perica) is currently being raised.
Denis provides insight into the working lives of both parties, as Sara conducts interviews on her radio show and Jean goes off on scouting missions to unearth new rugby stars. Viewers learn little about how the previous relationships of both characters dissolved or how Jean wound up in prison and struggled to find work. But for the most part, Denis focuses intently upon the ebb and flow of Sara and Jean’s relationship.
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At the beginning of Fire, Jean and Sara share the easy sensuality of two people who have lived in love for years, happily piling their lives on top of each other inside the cozy rooms of their apartment. During these domestic scenes, the camera presses especially close in on their faces, amplifying everything that passes between them. While things are good between Jean and Sara, Denis underlines the awesome power these two have to ignite each other’s passion with the slightest gesture.
However, the picture-perfect romance that the protagonists enjoy in Fire’s opening sequence occurs while they are on vacation, separated from the rest of their lives in a bubble of space and time that has been carved out just for them. Loving one another like that is so much more complicated when they return home, drop their bags and have to pick up everything they left behind.
After François returns, Jean and Sara try to carry on with their daily lives. They strive to remain in the present so that they can continue to delight in their life together, but neither of them can quite shake off the allure of the past. Jean goes back to work alongside François, knowing full well the risk it poses to his marriage but unable to turn down the first real career opportunity he’s found since getting out of prison. Sara soon finds herself drawn back to François as well, unable to stay away from him even as she knows she won’t be able to stay with him either.
While Fire has the perfect plot to litter with big, explosive emotional moments as affairs are ignited, uncovered and fought over, Denis plays it more for melancholy than for melodrama. Perhaps this is because the film’s middle-aged main players have all been around the block a few times before, but there is a sense of sad inevitability to it all. The protagonists understand the direction of the current that they have drifted into and none of them seem to have much will to fight it. When the three characters finally find themselves at the same party, Jean practically leads Sara by the hand into François’ arms.
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All of a sudden, the intimacy of the camerawork begins to feel oppressive in Fire. Now it seems to highlight everything that isn’t happening between Jean and Sara — every kiss that isn’t returned, every question avoided, every emotion that’s being submerged. Their closeness now makes them a danger to one another, liable to cause pain with the slightest inconsiderate movement.
The lead trio in Fire are all uniformly fantastic, excelling in the close-quarters environment. Lindon brings the same mixture of muscularity and tenderness that makes him such a gentle powerhouse in Titane, while Binoche is a tangle of desires and doubts, working hopelessly to pull them apart with as a little damage as possible. Even as Jean and Sara become steadily more guarded around one another, glimmers of vulnerability continue to peek out through. The tenderness and warmth which they exude at the start makes their increasing coldness to one another all the more painful. All the while, Colin circles them with a seductive, predatory smirk upon his face, silently preying on their unfulfilled wants and past regrets.
Although Denis had to utilize a smaller canvas afforded by the pandemic, Fire is obviously the work of a high level filmmaker. The French director has the confidence to let the drama simmer where others might have been tempted to force it to the boil. Denis drenches every scene in Fire with such a sultry sadness; the film stays captivating even as a drastic turn never seems to arrive.
Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.