“The film moves with a jazzy, flowing style, almost to the point of feeling piecemeal, but Binoche’s performance is too arresting to keep us at bay for very long.”
by Ken Bakely
Throughout Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In, there’s this constant feeling that everyone treats Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) as a concept, rather than a person. A middle-aged, divorced artist in Paris, she roams from relationship to relationship, hoping for man to connect with and truly fall in love, but they’re all quite awful. From a snobbish banker (Xavier Beauvois) to a disaffected, alcoholic actor (Nicolas Devauchelle), it’s as if she’s adrift in a world of jerks, left to examine the relationships between others, herself, and her art all alone. Yet Binoche and Denis find great room for expressive creations in Isabelle’s depressing introduction. Throughout this deft and humorous character piece, they form a portrait less about some specific details of modern love, and more about what it means to examine the ideas and constructs that fuel such a search in the first place.
The film moves with a jazzy, flowing style, almost to the point of feeling piecemeal, but Binoche’s performance is too arresting to keep us at bay for very long. And anyway, Isabelle is a character that a more rigorously structured movie wouldn’t know what to do with. She’s experienced enough to explore the balance between her physical actions and their emotional implications, and takes the time to understand new developments, mistakes, and surprises in the context of a richly textured life story. Let the Sunshine In doesn’t offer any trite digressions or simple solutions to her quest for romantic fulfillment, because it knows that would be a sellout of the character that Binoche so breezily brings to life. It’s telling that there are very few scenes of Isabelle actually making art: Denis doesn’t feel as if she needs to establish her protagonist’s place within her profession. After all, it’s implied that her lifelong devotion to such continual expression is, with mixed results, already on display through the active development of her love life.
Let the Sunshine In applies its careful-yet-lively gaze in other ways: Agnès Godard’s soft-edged cinematography further decries the sharp proclamations that would mark a more obvious interpretation of this story, and there’s no more compact thesis of the movie’s complex emotional core than its repeated usage of Etta James’s “At Last,” with its swooning lyrics vacillating between tenable promises and fantastical taunts. Though the film may be both romantic and comedic, it’s far more questioning of its own cultural premise than the traditional romantic comedy. Eventually, Denis posits that these searches for love are all part of a creation that we participate in to create order from the otherwise abstract rhythms of life. The film doesn’t find despair in that conclusion, but rather, an opportunity to explore the perspective of people within the movie’s world. We observe transitions solely in the cuts from scene to scene, without any clean act breaks to form a tight narrative. There’s something liberating about the whole thing. The awkward scenes feel darkly funny, the funny moments feel more awkward, and there’s a clarity to the experience that only comes from pulling back.
It continues to the last scene, which has Isabelle seek the advice of a psychic (Gérard Depardieu), and during their conversation – uncharacteristically cut as a precise two-hander – the credits roll. The first titles slink in, unenforced, almost as if the fourth wall has been reverse-broken, like we are the ones who have called attention to the movie’s existence. Then the full credit scroll proceeds as the conversation peacefully carries on. Let the Sunshine In summarizes its approach to its subject matter with this decision: the formal ideas of fatalistic love stories are as irrelevant as the line between the end of the plot and the end of the film. Isabelle is on a lifelong search for her own definitions and understandings of love, and she knows that these aren’t the kind of things that neatly resolve themselves all at once. But as simple a truth that is to memorize, it’s a near-existential implication that so rarely manifests itself onscreen, and even more rarely with such clear-eyed effectiveness. There may not be any overriding intentions that move the film beyond the exact sum of its parts, but when those parts include Denis’s direction and Binoche’s acting, it’s hard to complain about the achievements as they stand.