Let The Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)
France (2017) Dir. Claire Denis
In the romance game, finding “The One” is a thankless task for many people. Generally, this is undertaken while people are still young, unlike the subject of this mordant essay about dating in your later years.
50-something Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is a divorced mother and artist currently having an affair with boorish banker Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), who makes it clear he will never leave his wife. Realising this is not what she wants, Isabelle decides to return to the dating scene, hooking up with a succession of men, all with hang-ups of some kind that make Isabelle wonder if it is all worth it.
Claire Denis is a favourite among world cinema/arthouse cineastes and I must confess to have only seen two of her films – 35 Shots Of Rum and White Material – the former didn’t really knock me off my feet, the latter slightly more enjoyable . Admittedly, it was the presence of Juliette Binoche that drew me to Let The Sunshine In and she is top form here so in that respect my interest was rewarded.
However, the rest of the film left me cold and this is either me being thick or simply not being on the same wavelength as Denis or her acolytes who have lavished much praise on this outing. Yes, it’s one of those films – an acquired taste for niche audiences that makes big guys like me feel little and mainstream film fans wonder what the hell is going on.
The film’s billing as a romantic comedy is grossly misleading as there is not one scintilla of humour to be found anywhere, unless it is too imperceptibly subtle for us thickos, so maybe romantic drama is more accurate, but again this is less about romance and more about complex relationships. Add to that the cast are largely unlikeable, verbose, shallow egotists, this feels like Denis is getting something off her chest but I’m not sure what it is.
It’s actually based on a 1977 text by French theorist and writer Roland Barthes entitled A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, a philosophical collection of snippets lifted from classic literature as well as Barthes’ own musings on the subject of romance from a lover’s point of view. This would explain the pretentious dialogue heavy presentation and the episodic nature of the depiction of Isabelle’s disastrous love life, yet the chronology does some across a little askew as certain faces pop up at irregular intervals.
One inference that seems to be confirmed in the final scene (more on this later) is that Isabelle’s poor choice of men stems from her artistic leanings. As an abstract painter, this obvious maverick approach to her art extends to what she looks for in a romantic partner, seemingly attracting to men with a certain edge, a unique perspective on life or maybe even a sense of needing in them.
Vincent really is a piece of work, arrogant and self-absorbed – “Just got back from Brazil and felt like banging you!” he declares, arriving unannounced with a huge bouquet for Isabelle – and while his bedroom prowess is less than stellar, Vincent only manages to satisfy Isabelle when she is imagining to herself what a scumbag he is!
After Vincent, Isabelle meets a morose younger actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) planning to leave his wife but hasn’t the courage to tell her. He regrets sleeping with Isabelle yet can’t keep away from her so he goes back to his wife then tries to woo Isabelle again. Next Isabelle jumps into bed with ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill) which they both regret after arguing over their 10 year-old daughter.
One bright point for Isabelle is a quiet gallery owner Marc (Alex Descas), a 50 year-old with kids and the manners of a gentleman, the only man Isabelle doesn’t sleep with and believes is her only right choice. Instead, Isabelle is seduced by a silent man Sylvain (Paul Blain) on the dance floor during a work trip, but being so diametrically opposed in tastes and lifestyle proves their undoing.
The question one comes away with from this is whether Isabelle actually knows what she wants from a man and a relationship, which is not answered but it’s not for the lack of trying as Isabelle canvasses opinion from friends who proffer different responses. One says she must stay within her “milieu” (the art world) as they understand her; another says go with her heart.
In the end, Isabelle visits a medium, David (Gérard Depardieu), for advice, himself having broken up with a woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) in the previous scene. This takes up the final 10 minutes of the film with David waffling on with the same repetitious twaddle about which men will be good for her and which ones won’t. Isabelle laps it up and feels like she has her answers in what was the only part of the film that felt like a satire.
Juliette Binoche is a versatile actress of repute and gravitas yet even she couldn’t make Isabelle completely likeable or sympathetic in all cases. Against Vincent she was but with the others less so, her being unsure what she wanted made it seem she was leading them on and they only responding as a man would in that scenario.
For Binoche this was a brave role for her age in that the first shot is her lying naked on bed as Vincent mounts her – and she is always dressed in thigh high boots, leather mini skirt and low cut tops, which you would not see in Hollywood or with a marquee name. Whatever it was Denis was after Isabelle, she certainly got it from Binoche and I doubt anyone else could have delivered on this.
This really sums up my feeling towards Let The Sunshine In – I don’t know what Denis was trying to achieve with this film, which is why I couldn’t get onboard with it, beyond Binoche’s mesmerising performance. Loyal Denis fans however will be in their element here.