“Fire” begins in water: a wide, rippling expanse of Mediterranean blue under a cloudless sky, displaced and disrupted by two whirling human bodies. Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) tussle in the otherwise empty ocean as though they’ve just discovered weightlessness, while Eric Gautier’s camera lingers on skin touching skin under the shimmer. The lovers are, we guess, on vacation, though in this immediately seductive opening scene, they seem suspended in another ecstatic reality altogether.
It’s no spoiler to say we’ll never see them like this again in Claire Denis’ frank, hot-blooded relationship drama; most relationships only have select moments of such removed bliss, after all. But we frequently grieve for this sunlit simplicity in the messy, emotionally fraught and very Parisian pileup of desires, regrets and jealousies that follows. “Fire” is a love triangle of unusually elegant geometry, with multiple romantic histories and phantom futures to be formed from its fragments.
Returning Denis to home turf after the English-language sci-fi departure of “High Life,” “Fire” sees the helmer reunite with the two key collaborators from her delightful 2017 romantic comedy “Let the Sunshine In”: Binoche, of course, and co-writer Christine Angot, on whose novel “Un Tournant de la Vie” the film is based. As in that movie, Denis’ latest sees her applying her usual rigorous form and psychological curiosity to material that tends to inspire more generic directorial treatment, teasing out a rich, nuanced exploration of female desire from the fault lines of an ostensibly simple narrative. If a separate strand probing mixed racial identity and unequal social prospects in the Paris banlieues feels less completely developed and woven into the whole, this is nonetheless chewy, stimulating adult filmmaking. Already acquired for the U.S. by IFC Films, “Fire” should blaze through the international art-house circuit following its Berlinale competition premiere.
Once back in steel-gray urban surroundings — signaled by a railway tracking shot that prompts immediate memories of the comparably intimate, domestic “35 Shots of Rum” — Sara and Jean’s relationship begins to take on a shape and baggage distinct from that idyllic introduction. Denis and Angot’s script is slow and sparing with its details, however, making us piece together the couple’s history as much from stray gestures and gazes as from anything we are expressly told. The picture that emerges is more complex and conflicted than we might guess from the bourgeois trappings of their life together: the chic modernist top-floor apartment they share in central Paris, or Sara’s job as a socially conscious talk-show host at an NPR-style radio station.
Turns out their decade-long relationship has been a middle-aged do-over for both of them, with the past compartmentalized and usually kept just out of sight. Jean is an ex-convict whose 17-year-old Black son Marcus (Issa Perica) lives with Jean’s mother, Nelly (Bulle Ogier), in the suburban commune in Vitry; Marcus’ own mother is a distant presence in Martinique. Alienated from his family and adrift in his own cultural gray area, Marcus is acting out in ways it may be too late for his absent father to caution against.
Sara, too, is a parent, though she appears to dwell more on the embers of her failed marriage to Jean’s former friend and business partner François (Denis regular Grégoire Colin), from whom both have long been estranged. We’re left to surmise how the trio’s relationship broke down and rearranged itself, though the longer we spend with them, the clearer it becomes that Sara and Jean’s happiness is a fragile and selective construct, functioning only in the present tense. When Sara one day glimpses François by chance in the street, the flushed delirium she experiences at the mere sight of him is not an encouraging omen.
Melodrama being what it is, it’s not long before Jean is reunited with François by a work opportunity, and the couple’s shared resolve to be detached and altogether adult about this falls swiftly by the wayside — not least as the other man wolfishly seduces both of them, in a sense. “Fire” provides no tidy answer to the age-old question of whether you can truly love two people at once: Either way, once the floating helium contentment of Jean and Sara’s relationship is punctured, a world of hitherto sidelined complications moves back into view. In its last third, “Fire” pivots into a roaring, shouting, combative marital drama of the classic French school, kept interesting by our shifting, unsettled sense of who the participants in this good old-fashioned ménage à trois even are.
Flintier than she was in “Let the Sunshine In,” Binoche is marvelous in a role that makes pointed thematic use of her elusive, melancholic screen allure, though she’s most surprising in scenes that push her into a state of paralyzing emotional overdrive. Lindon, ever the rumpled Everyman, skips remarkably from bearish tenderness to callused cool, etching years of unspoken suffering and psychological self-protection into his mood switches.
Gautier, in his first collaboration with the director, often shoots the leads’ faces in tingling, discomfiting close-up, the characters’ emotions writ so large they scarcely know what to do with them; the film’s sharp, forthright sex scenes likewise offer them few hiding places. Even a customary peck on the cheek is a loaded erotic act here, woozily amplified and made electric by another enveloping, sandpaper-on-velvet art-rock score by Denis favorites Tindersticks. In this simultaneously small and cavernous love story, even a whisper echoes for days.