Culture

Film

At last: Claire Denis’ ‘Let the Sunshine In’

By Annabel Brady-Brown
Juliette Binoche is luminous in this funny and lucid portrait of desire

Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In. © 2017 Curiosa Films – Playtime Production – Ad Vitam – Versus Production

Claire Denis was unimpressed when her new film, Un beau soleil intérieur, was renamed the Hair-raising Let the Sunshine In for English audiences. The saccharine musical debuted a half century ago, in the same year The Beatles gushed that love is all we need. But such loose visions of romance now seem hokey, and are worlds apart from the experience of Denis’ latest lonely heart, Isabelle (Juliette Binoche). She mopes about her Paris apartment, aching after that most delicate and hackneyed of desires: “I want to find a love. A real love,” she sniffles. (Not since Johnny Depp’s turn as juvenile delinquent Cry-Baby has a tear so eloquently sparkled on a cheek.)

From peripheral titbits we gather that Isabelle is a successful painter, a mother, materially wanting for nothing – and yet the fifty-something divorcee whimpers, “Is this my life?” Some may snort at Isabelle’s cushioned misery, but her yearning is respectfully indulged in Denis’ nimble feature, her thirteenth. Denis’ cinema is more at home when dealing with reticent outsiders who creep at the edges of society; hotel maids, train drivers, soldiers, drag queens, and hot-and-bothered teens. But from the opening scene of Let the Sunshine In – an unsatisfactory fuck that has Isabelle huffing, “Will you just come already?” – we’re positioned to sympathise with her frustrations, however bourgeois they may be. That angelic phantom, real love, lies out of reach. The unspoken bogeyman, abject solitude, hovers in the wings.

Denis has never been big on exposition, preferring the expressiveness of a sensuous gesture, a dream-like image or a song. Here she takes a Marie Kondo approach to plot: the narrative is de-cluttered, clipped to what’s essential, lurching forward via ellipses and temporal jumps so that we’re unsure if one sequence follows another a day or a month later. And yet it’s surprisingly direct (by Denis standards). Isabelle courts a series of men, depicted mostly through cosy tête-à-têtes in softly lit bars and galleries. Her prospective princes are an ogreish banker (Xavier Beauvois); her lamb-like ex-husband (Laurent Grévill); a sulky actor partial to a drink (Nicolas Duvauchelle); a mousey, working-class beau (Paul Blain); and a suave art-world denizen (Denis favourite Alex Descas), who sparks the film’s one truly believable moment of gooey-kneed grace.

This ticklish comedy of manners is carried by Binoche’s bursting, ripe displays. In a single scene, she pivots between despair and determination. Each knowing look or jutted jaw plays up the obscenity of love – what Bataille likened to standing naked in a public room – and wins our affections. Isabelle crumples then resurrects, phoenix-like, from the ashes of one affair after another, gallantly donning her thigh-high stilettoed boots for a future round. That she persists speaks to her undying optimism: love will save the day. Or so it goes.

It could all be rather grim – if only it weren’t so funny. Her suitors’ preposterousness comes off as a mordant joke, thanks to the deliciously barb-filled script, which Denis penned in cahoots with the French novelist Christine Angot (responsible for the autofiction cause célèbre Incest). Inspired by anecdotes from both women’s lives, the film covers territory all too familiar, including a clumsy stop-start pick-up attempt in an idling car, captured with excruciating veracity, through to the downright buffoonish, like an entitled date’s demand for gluten-free olives. Oh, and more bad sex, natch.

Heterosexual relationships rarely get a kind look in Denis’ oeuvre – the sirens wail loudest in Trouble Every Day (2001), a sensational tale of brain-diseased vampiric cannibals whose ruttings result ultimately in death. But Let the Sunshine In delivers a more ambivalent shrug. Desire is unfulfilled, or just doesn’t stick. One douchey sweetheart withdraws the morning after; “This isn’t a love thing,” he repeats, nipping Isabelle’s nascent hopes in the bud. More tears. As the film negotiates the chasm between Isabelle and each lover, Denis sneaks in profundity. The film may appear slight – a picaresque romp through the dating world, star-powered and easy on the eye – but discreetly shifts gears to become another of Denis’ fearsomely lucid portraits of desire.

Rather than trashing the male species entirely, the film digs deeper, examining Isabelle’s complicity in the ratty push-pull game. She gets her own shot at wickedness: she swings moodily; boots her ex from her bed when he offends by wetting his fingers; drops another because he’s below her station, cowardly heeding a friend’s toxic advice. It’s these flushes that artfully betray the film’s other point of origin: Roland Barthes’ 1977 treatise, A Lover’s Discourse. Denis originally planned to adapt his dissection of obsessive love, which is divided into fun topics like agony, catastrophe, exile, jealousy and suicide. Though she eventually abandoned the idea, the anxious spirit of Barthes’ text lingers, yielding the wordiest of her features to date. (Barthes famously said the loved object doesn’t speak, but Isabelle can’t seem to get them to shut up.)

The one exception to all this chatter lands as sweet relief. When out of town for a rural contemporary art festival, Isabelle locks eyes with a stranger across the dance floor of a nightclub, and goose-pimpling carnal lust strikes like lightning. The film’s unofficial anthem, Etta James’s “At Last”, croons over the speakers. The handsome local approaches gently from behind, and Isabelle swoons in his arms. The spell is cast. For the length of the song, superstar cinematographer Agnès Godard is set free – breaking from the mostly static camera set-ups that have framed so many of the seated conversations till now. The camera roves around the dancers, trailing hands that snake down backs and caress necks. Their slow dance is both a chivalric fantasy and a reminder of the luxe visions of flesh from Denis and Godard’s past collaborations, wordless ecstasies of union sexier than anything on Pornhub. As Isabelle says to one date earlier in the film, when they finally start taking off their clothes, “It feels so good to stop all that talking. I thought it would never end.”

Besides its sad study of the redundancy of language, the greatest influence of Barthes’ text is perhaps its resolve to be an “affirmation”. Isabelle’s enduring hope (which at times seems wilfully blind, regenerating as if supernaturally after each fresh bout of tears) means she actually radiates in the final scene, seems to visibly glow, lit from some sunny wellspring within. This miraculous spectacle is hard to resist, even for us cynics. The film’s perfect ending – a 15-minute sequence that runs over the credits, featuring Gérard Depardieu as a horny fortune teller – suggests new hope blooming, however foolishly. Perhaps the film’s Age of Aquarius–ripped English title isn’t as idiotic as it first seems. Maybe love will steer the stars after all.

 

Let the Sunshine In is in cinemas now.

Annabel Brady-Brown

Annabel Brady-Brown is a founding editor of Fireflies magazine and film editor at The Big Issue. @annnabelbb

Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In. © 2017 Curiosa Films – Playtime Production – Ad Vitam – Versus Production

Read on

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and CFMEU Victoria secretary John Setka

Judge stymies Albanese’s plans to expel Setka from ALP

A protracted battle is the last thing the Opposition needs

Image from ‘Booksmart’

Meritocracy rules in ‘Booksmart’

Those who work hard learn to play hard in Olivia Wilde’s high-school comedy

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg

The government’s perverse pursuit of surplus

Aiming to be back in black in the current climate is bad economics

Image of Blixa Bargeld at Dark Mofo

Dark Mofo 2019: Blixa Bargeld

The German musician presides over a suitably unpredictable evening


×
×