The bright tones and subtle character comedy of Let the Sunshine In may be the most significant stylistic departure of Claire Denis’ career to date.
Claire Denis has been one of the great directors from the start, an emotional constructivist whose gift for hyper-specific observation and elegiac, elliptical editing transforms even her bleakest films into sensual evocations of her characters’ innermost urges. God knows Denis has made some harrowing films; her previous one, Bastards, was an absolute descent into hell, a blast of rage directed at both the bankers who got off scot-free from the collapse they engineered and the men who rape and abuse with impunity. That film’s grim, deliberately ugly tone is worlds away from the bright tones and subtle character comedy of Let the Sunshine In, which may be the most significant stylistic departure of the director’s career to date.
If the typical Denis film immerses the viewer in its characters’ fragmented thoughts and tacitly established sociopolitical contexts, her latest is the study of a woman who has grown mistrustful of and resistant to the desires that drive Denis’ other work. Divorced and middle-aged, painter Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) finds herself thrust back into casual dating after an ostensibly lifelong relationship fell apart, and her bafflement at having to resume the peripatetic emotional existence of being single leaves her unable to articulate what she even wants from a relationship. The camera matches her cagey caution; the first images of the movie show her making love with a paramour, a banker named Vincent (Xavier Beauvois). Rather than home in on the movement of bodies to focus on fetishistic details like flesh rising and falling, the camera watches almost like a researcher taking notes, evaluating the performance. Isabelle herself emanates ambivalent about the whole affair, and when she urges Vincent to orgasm, her voice lacks either pleasure or boredom.
Vincent, who is married and refuses to consider leaving his wife, is affectionate toward Isabelle but cannot help but let slip behavior informed by his immense wealth. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Vincent takes her to a bar where he speaks imperiously to servers and places absurdly fussy orders, such as demanding gluten-free olives. His displays of power repulse Isabelle and cause her to mull over the way his transactional relationship with the world extends to her. Vincent is but the first of a string of men whose initially pleasant demeanor reveals shades of infuriating flaws. Mathieu (Philippe Katerine), a casual acquaintance who hangs around Isabelle’s local fish market, constantly invites her to his countryside cabin, each time pitching it as less and less innocent as if he thought Isabelle simply wasn’t understanding his intentions rather than ignoring them. Later, Isabelle’s colleague Fabrice (Bruno Podalydès), asks about one man she’s been seeing for a few weeks, and with total sincerity (and thinly veiled resentment) wonders if the two have moved in together he cannot understand why Isabelle looks at him as if he were insane.
The extent to which Isabelle both judges and is judged by the men around her is visualized in elegant ways, most often through a slightly off-beat shot/reverse shot structures. As conversation bounces between people, the camera lags slightly in following the speakers, lingering on the person listening as if studying their attentiveness. This method comes to the foreground in the interactions of Isabelle and a divorced actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), wherein obvious physical chemistry clashes with the man’s narcissism in conversation. He also betrays a petulant streak; when Isabelle hesitates to invite the man into her apartment at the end of their first date, he huffs insolently like a toddler about to throw a tantrum in a cereal aisle. She invites him in to mollify him and ends up having sex so good that she walks him to the door beaming and still nude, but all too quickly that physical connection is outweighed by his insufferability.
Watching Isabelle become increasingly fed-up with such men is undeniably fun, but Denis and Binoche do not spare the protagonist from scrutiny. Isabelle struggles to articulate what she wants, or even her anxieties about being single, leading to exchanges where she amusingly dances around asking a question, as in a bit where she attempts to delicately ask her gallerist (Josiane Balasko) whether she had a relationship with Isabelle’s ex, a topic she broaches so obliquely that when the other woman pieces it together she dissolves into giggles. Occasionally, Isabelle’s pent-up feelings explode in outbursts, such as a hilarious, unrelated rant kicked off by the pretentiousness of an artists’ retreat, or in a public restroom breakdown where she confesses “I feel like my love life’s behind me” to a friend who callously talks about how she should have stayed with her husband.
Still, hope abounds. A late scene in a club finds Isabelle momentarily losing herself slow-dancing with a stranger (Paul Blain) to Etta James’ “At Last” in another stellar entry into Denis’ canonical modern dance scenes. There are also two interactions toward the end of the film that embody brighter possibilities. A late-night stroll with a fellow artist (Alex Descas) becomes almost unbearably sweet as Descas’ brooding but gentle presence captivates Isabelle to the point of being unable to hide her attraction, only for the man to urge taking things slowly and letting them develop rather than rushing everything and moving on. This represents such a massive break from Isabelle’s dating life that she is driven to tears by the belief he is rejecting her, but his calm, patient assurances hint at organic growth. Then there’s the final scene, in which Isabelle visits a newly single fortune teller (Gérard Depardieu), whose fortunes clearly start to turn into a kind of proposition, forecasting that the frivolous men in the woman’s life will be replaced by someone “meatier.” This low-key pitch is hilarious enough, but halfway into it the credits begin to roll, filling the screen with Brechtian reminders both that this was all just a riff on relationship hang-ups and that Isabelle’s story doesn’t end with romantic success or failure, and that the intensity with which she treats her desire for companionship is just one of many phases in her life and not something either she or the audience need take too seriously. Denis has made sensuous divertissements before, but this thoughtful acceptance of love’s labors stands out at one of her most quietly invigorating works.