Juliette Binoche hasn’t allowed herself to look this vulnerable and foolish onscreen in years, and if there’s any justice couples will flock to Let the Sunshine In and argue afterward about the decisions her Isabelle makes about the men she dates. If these theatergoers are Claire Denis fans, they can also debate the departure that Let the Sunshine In represents. Whichever they choose, Let the Sunshine In deserves pondering. It’s a movie I can imagine any audience except mine pressing against themselves (mine, I should point out, was characterized by impatient clucks followed by several walkouts).
A director who in Beau Travail, White Material and 35 Shots of Rum has proven the keenest observer of the influence of land over character, Denis abjures her characteristic austerity for bold declarative strokes. Allowing Isabelle to share excerpts of interior monologues with the audience like, “Is this my life? Why couldn’t it be different for once” creates a delicious tension: recoiling and embracing her are the same thing. Bolder and more declarative even than opening the film with an overhead shot of Isabelle being made love to. The man doing the loving — or, rather, the sexing — is Vincent (Xavier Beauvois, director of the superb 2011 Of Gods and Men), one of the many lovers who passes through Isabelle’s life. A bearded, comfortably obese burgher sort accustomed to having his whims indulged, Vincent meets Isabelle for a drink later, precipitating one of the more hapless bar scenes in modern film: the bartender must leave the bottle of scotch on the counter, bring hot water (without lemon), find gluten-free olives (there ain’t any), take back the bottle of scotch, while Isabelle observes with mounting disgust.
The precision in this scene is Ozu-esque in its distillation of essentials, and Denis’ subtle pans are alert to the gradations of Isabelle’s moods. A scene earlier in the picture in Vincent’s modern apartment where she can’t find a comfortable place to sit works similar small miracles. Even more exquisite is the excruciating mating dance between Isasbelle and an unnamed stage actor played by Denis veteran Nicolas Duvauchelle. Married, with a fondness for beer, the actor can’t stop blathering about “the grind” while Isabelle regards him with a mix of impatience and a can-we-fuck-anyway ardor. They do, and he backs away, only to return for more, and he backs away again; he fetishizes hesitation like others do feet. I mentioned Ozu earlier; Denis also demonstrates a gift for imbuing objects with animistic intensity reminiscent of Max Ophuls. While Isabelle sits in Duvauchelle’s car during a fraught moment, Denis cuts twice between Binoche and a close-up of her hand on the door handle — should she stay or should she go? It’s one of the few such cuts, a gram of black comedy.
A film lovingly devoted to the sexual travails of a middle-aged woman is so rare that when it’s as sharp as Let the Sunshine In it’s like a glass of white wine after a tedious ceremony. Whether its winnowed structure works I’m still thinking about. Denis spends less time with Isabelle’s successive lovers, one a fellow artist named Sylvain (Paul Blain) barely registers except when he looks crushed by Isabelle’s unkind words, the other her ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill) with whom she enjoys a practiced bedroom intimacy but years of baggage. An argument about returning his house keys triggers a string of accumulated resentments; we learn that their ten-year-old daughter has seen Isabelle cry herself to sleep every night. A director as punctilious as Denis might have intended to emphasize the increasingly fruitless nature of Isabelle’s sorties; as veterans of the dating app wars know, revising your script for every hookup feels like Long Day’s Journey Into Night‘s James Tyrone playing the Count of Monte Cristo a thousand times for twenty years.
The sorties may be hopeless, but Isabelle remains hopeful. Let the Sunshine In is a film about the interstice of hopelessness and hope. Let me close with two scenes unexpected in Denis’ work. In the first, Isabelle sways, enraptured, to Etta James’ “At Last” at a party. Where Denis has specialized in what I called in my review of Bastards a cinema of ruthless elision, she lets the scene play — and play; it’s as if the openness of Isabelle and the generosity of Binoche’s performance switched Denis temporarily from artist to spectator (a dance sequence in 50 Shots of Rum has an entirely different pitch and emphasis). For the closing credit sequence Denis films a ten-minute exchange between Isabelle and a certain titan of French cinema, playing a kind of New Age love guru. He means every word, and Denis takes him as seriously as he wants to be. Pay attention to your “interior sun,” he urges her. His advice isn’t selfless: he signals that he’d love to help her see that sun (the speed with which Binoche calculates the implications of those signals is one of many small triumphs for the actress).
In a way the advice is unnecessary — hasn’t Isabelle been walking by the light of her own sun for the length of the picture? Allowing herself to look ragged and red-eyed, Binoche turns Isabelle’s melancholy into a kind of resolve (“Crying is for maids and monkeys,” Vincent scoffs at one point, wrong again). I’ve never connected with Beau Travail despite several attempts yet watching Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep, Trouble No More, and White Material again in recent years convinced me she’s one of the two or three greatest directors working. Although not in the first tier of Denis’ work, Let the Sunshine In represents an uneven but fascinating re-calibration for the director. Writing and filming the travails of the older dating set risks foolishness, producing a mirror effect — no wonder my audience, comprised of couples and loners, rejected it.
Let the Sunshine In is playing at Coral Gables Art Cinema.