Making love is better when you’re in love. For Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a painter living in Paris, the former comes easily and the latter vexes her. She has no trouble meeting men, falling for them, sleeping with them. They practically stumble into her orbit, then into her embrace, and she into theirs. There’s Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), the banker, forceful, piggish, but at least honest about his wish to keep their fling a fling; there’s the unnamed actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), thoughtful, handsome, sensitive to a fault, and burdened by too many hang-ups; there’s her ex-husband, François (Laurent Grévill), still in her life and in her bed, loving but unnatural and too quick to their 10-year-old daughter as a bargaining chip in their undefined relationship.
That’s a sample platter of Isabelle’s romantic partners, but it is exactly romance she’s looking for and woefully lacking. When your sex life is rich but your love life poor, life itself tends gradually to lose overarching meaning, and the search for meaning is the engine driving Claire Denis’ new film, Let the Sunshine In, an ostensible romantic comedy that’s light on both but rich with soulful ennui. Not to say that Denis and Binoche don’t make us laugh, mind you, but what they’re really after is considerably more complicated than the simple pleasures the genre has to offer. Let the Sunshine In is a sexy film, a free, loose, yet rigorously made film, and yes, it’s occasionally a funny film, but primarily it’s a painful film, that pain deriving from primal amorous cravings that unfailingly slip through Isabelle’s fingers like so much sand.
Some people are born incapable of tangling themselves in emotional complexities. None of them appear in Let the Sunshine In. If there’s any solace for Isabelle in Denis’ narrative, it’s that in her pursuit of abiding connection she is not alone: Each of the film’s characters is looking for, if not the exact same thing, then something else, and at every possible turn, each character is denied that something. Even Vincent, a man with a libido as off-putting as his sense of self-satisfaction, eventually resorts to pleading with Isabelle over the phone when she decides she’s had enough of his boorish misogynist shit and dumps him. He’s married, he claims, to an extraordinary woman. All the same, he’s unfaithful to her, susceptible to Isabelle’s allure and utterly convinced that what they have is special.
Denis, aided by author Christine Angot, has used Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments as the basis for Let the Sunshine In, wielding Barthes’ thoughts on interior love in service to her external survey of attachment and courtship. (If you’re going to adapt a written work into a movie, then this is probably the best way to do it—by divorcing the word from the screen entirely to such extent that one is unrecognizable from the other.) Isabelle does not hide her purpose or mask her feelings. She wears them both like armor, though that doesn’t protect her from the bumps and bruises of her many disappointments and heartbreaks.
And Denis doesn’t try to disguise Isabelle’s wounds. In fact, she hones in on them. Let the Sunshine In is frequently shot in close-up, centered on Binoche’s face, her eyes darting to the edges and corners of the frame, or on her hands, nervously, lonesomely settled on her own thigh. Even at rest, Isabelle remains in motion. So does the film. Denis’ camera, steered by her longtime collaborator Agnès Godard, conveys movement whether still or guiding the viewer to the bedroom, along Parisian streets, across dance floors, or through a friend’s vast country estate, where Isabelle treats an obnoxious member of the ultra-wealthy to a vigorous tongue-lashing on the subjects of classism and property. For the most part, Let the Sunshine In’s humor invites quiet laughter, but here, Isabelle’s discontent explodes into full-blown, uproarious agitation.
It isn’t the first time she declares aloud her feelings, but it’s the most shocking, not necessarily to the viewer but certainly to all assembled in her presence. Isabelle spends most of the movie uncoiled but stymied by the urgent unease of a woman whom fate has allotted a place beneath what she deserves. She wants things to click with the actor, but they don’t: Intention and wanting become questions too convoluted for either of them to answer, each of them second guessing themselves as they wrestle over whether to screw or part ways for good. She wants things to click with Marc (Alex Descas), perhaps the best man she encounters in the film, a gallerist who wants to take things slow when Isabelle wants to take things briskly. He clearly wants her, and how could he not? She’s gorgeous. We know it. Marc knows it. Denis knows it, and basks in it, appreciating Binoche’s beauty to an extent that nearly reads as worship.
But Let the Sunshine In argues that love is as much the product of timing as it is desire, and Marc, as with all men, ultimately eludes her. The film strikes us as straightforward when boiled down to its synopsis, but Denis layers conflicting human longing upon its rom-com framework. The blend of artistry and genre is breezy and dense at the same time, a film worth enjoying for its surface charms and studied for its deeply personal reflections on intimacy. You may delight in its lively, buoyant filmmaking, but you’ll be awed by the breadth of its insight.
Director: Claire Denis
Writer: Claire Denis, Christine Angot
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Laurent Grévill, Josiane Balasko, Bruno Podalydès, Philippe Katerine, Alex Descas, Gérard Depardieu
Release Date: May 11, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.