Many of the most award-winning screenplays of both the classical and modern era are also among the archest and most self-conscious. After all, as much as I admire all of them, nobody talks like they do in Aaron Sorkin or Quentin Tarantino or Coen Brothers or Joseph L. Mankiewicz scripts. Their dialogue is flashy, eccentric, aspirational. Rarely is someone struck speechless in any of their movies; the writers are too clever to let that happen, and they want us to recognize that.
Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In is what happens when that veil of writerly theatricality is fully lifted and exposed, leaving its characters — especially its central one, Juliette Binoche’s Isabelle — fumbling to gather their thoughts, to describe the ineffable, to communicate even their most basic emotions lucidly. Even the question “How are you?,” presented to a forlorn taxi driver, is not construed. “Meaning?” he responds. Unable to express their thoughts, they commiserate over public-radio jazz.
Yet, while it’s shot and edited with a careful precision — every cut dividing characters within a space is meaningful, and so is every wide shot connecting them — Let the Sunshine In is very much a dialogue-driven movie, akin to the Jean Eustache and Eric Rohmer sagas of the New Wave. Characters can speak in flawed, clumsy ways, but every syllable is important, and meaningful conclusions are only reached by talking things out.
“Being a backstreet lover is just unbearable,” Isabelle says to herself, fighting tears after a rendezvous with a married man who will never leave his sainted wife. It’s one of her few moments of knowing, but, tellingly, there’s no one to hear it but us. When coupled with any number of eager suitors, she shuts down, because she doesn’t know what she wants. Hers is a selective aphasia, born of conflicted desires and a deep-rooted discontent.
Isabelle’s attempts to alleviate her protracted melancholy are, conversely, a joy for viewers. Denis’ first film in four years is among her deftest — as loose as Friday Night, as searching as 35 Shots of Rum. It’s based on an unlikely source material, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, but you needn’t appreciate this fact to enjoy Isabelle’s sexual and romantic odyssey.
Like its fragmentary source, Denis elides exposition both temporal and spatial, planting us in the episodic trenches of Isabelle’s love life, beau by beau. After dredging up enough confidence to dump her married lothario, Isabelle hooks up with an actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a tortured artist given to wallowing in existential malaise. (Isabelle is an artist too — a painter — though in this part of her life, she’s in complete command.) They fumble toward a night together, Isabelle summing up their conversational roadblocks with, “we said things, then we said the opposite.”
Recognizing that the actor is hesitant about a potential romance, she throws a provocation at him, then walks it back: “Don’t listen to everything I say.” In one uber-real moment, they discuss the fact that they don’t know how to discuss things, finding ecstasy in the bedroom only when they finally shut their mouths and let their bodies do the talking.
And so it goes with a string of potential paramours that Claire either consummates or rejects. One is her ex-husband, Francois (Laurent Grevill); it’s going well until a sexual move she deems as inauthentic — borrowed, perhaps, from another lover during their time apart — offends her. Another is Sylvain (Paul Blain), a working-class stranger whose silent advance in a nightclub she accepts, each of them suddenly intoxicated by the Etta James wafting over their slow-motion pheromones.
Still another, Fabrice (Bruno Podalydes), a pompous gallerist who thinks he knows her better than she does, swings for her and misses by a mile. An unnamed museum guard (Alex Descas) who is arresting in his honesty, seems most promising, but Isabelle doesn’t know how to respond to his forthrightness and lack of game-playing. “I don’t know what to say,” she says, which sums up her character.
Even in 2018, a woman like Isabelle is a rare cinematic species. We’ve encountered plenty of playboys — Alfie and his ilk — whose promiscuity is celebrated onscreen, but consequence-free sexual experimentation is still unusual for the fairer sex. Denis presents it all like it’s no big deal, which is exactly right.
Isabelle’s meandering journey leads not toward high-minded profundity or, worse, some moral blowback, but in the simple advice to be open to life’s possibilities — to let the sunshine in — delivered by a psychic played by a star whose cameo appearance is too delightful to spoil. That his profession, and his counsel, is presented without judgment is typical of Denis’ own open-minded questioning. Hers is a filmmaking that lives out of abundance, even when her protagonists can’t quite verbalize how special that is.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN (UN BEAU SOLEIL INTÉRIEUR). Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Bruno Podalydes, Paul Blain, Laurent Grevill, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas; Director: Claire Denis; Distributor: IFC; Not rated; in French with English subtitles. Now playing at the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Gables Art Cinema; opens Friday at Living Room Theaters at FAU.