Milo Garner examines Claire Denis’ latest dramatic feature.
Michael Hanake’s Happy End seemed novel in its comedic contrast to his typically austere filmography, but he isn’t alone in this sudden change of direction. Claire Denis, French auteur extraordinaire, is director and co-writer (with acclaimed French novelist Christin Angot) of Let the Sunshine In, which might well be described as a rom-com. Far from the incestuous child rape of 2013’s Bastards, Denis’ latest concerns a wayward artist caught out of love. But, again like Hanake, Denis is remains in a thematic ballpark unmistakably hers; and though playing for a dry humour unseen in most of her work, she doesn’t settle for smiles all round.
Let the Sunshine In centres on Juliette Binoche’s Isabelle. The film opens with striking imagery of her in bed with a bulbous banker, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois). This uneven pairing is slowly explained as the narrative unfolds, with Isabelle unsure of herself – and unsure why she stays with Vincent despite his clear repugnancy, moneyed or not. One reason she offers is that by considering what a bastard he is, she is able to orgasm. But despite this seeming detachment from him emotionally, his cutting words – including the gem, ‘you are charming, but my wife is extraordinary’ – still seem to bite. As such Isabelle flows from one man to the next, her subsequent quarry a young and infuriatingly indecisive actor (Denis regular Nicolas Duvauchelle). Compared to Vincent he is far less interested in sex, and more in trying to build an emotional connexion, if one Isabelle is not necessarily aware of. A moment of the dry comedy that is infused throughout the film is the conversation the two have concerning their happiness that they have finally decided to stop talking. Denis might generally be a more visually focused director, but here there is a lot of talk – too much, as the point might be.
Other men Isabelle oscillates between include fellow artist Marc (Alex Descas, another familiar face for Denis), who is gentle but old; her ex-husband François (Laurent Grevill); and an attractive man she meets on the dancefloor (Paul Blain) who is outside of her ‘milieu’. That’s at least according to Fabrice (Bruno Podalydès), a jealous gallerist who, like many of the others, seems to have fallen for Isabelle. But therein is her problem: her inability to find any fulfilling connexion to any of these men. The question of the film, as posed by David Ehrlich in his review for IndieWire, is ‘what is one to do when they’re not in love?’ It is that flame Isabelle chases, but it’s predictably elusive. Less predictable, however, is the manner in which Denis approaches this problem. Rather than focusing on sex or the conventional pitfalls of affairs, she instead focuses on conversations between Isabelle and these men. The relationships are often elliptical or even off-screen, in the case of Vincent and François. After Fabrice questions her relationship with Paul Blain’s character, for example, she finds herself frayed and confronts her partner. We had only seen their meeting formerly, but much of their wider dynamic is portrayed in this single interaction.
This structural interest is matched by formal execution, particularly, as usual, in Agnes Godard’s camerawork. The use of colour and composition are faultless, as are some moments of motion. One such moment is a conversation between Vincent and Isabelle, captured as the camera pans and tracks between the two, so that they rarely share a frame. The rhythm of this movement means that we are often shown the reaction of a character, particularly Isabelle, rather than their lines, and so gain insight into the more important subtext to their relationship at that time. For Vincent this is a meaningless fling; Isabelle’s face doesn’t agree. This is naturally enabled by Binoche’s performance, which is typically excellent, managing both the dramatic heft of the film and its occasional comedic flourishes. For example, during a tour of Fabrice’s countryside abode – where he waxes lyrically on what it is to own the vast and pleasant lands at his disposal, and just at the moment I worry the film might be taking him seriously – Isabelle explodes in rebuttal to Fabrice’s self-aggrandizing pretensions. Gratifying and amusing. Another is the appearance of Gerard Depardieu as a kind of new-age relationship counsellor. As the credits play over the extended scene, Depardieu offers hollow advice to be ‘open’ to Isabelle, all the while subtly (or not so subtly) implying that he is her best option in love. But as abovementioned, the film is not necessarily playing for laughs, though it recognises the inherent comedy in its themes; themes Denis has formerly covered through a more serious lens (Friday Night, for example). This doesn’t, however, revoke Let the Sunshine In of its thematic power, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of her best.
Let the Sunshine In premiered in the UK on the 13th of October, at London Film Festival. Trailer below.