The desire for a loving relationship takes many forms in the latest film from veteran French director Claire Denis, Let the Sunshine In. Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle, an abstract painter living in Paris, whom we eventually discover is divorced and has a young daughter. The film, however, barely glimpses at these aspects of her life. What we see is Isabelle’s tentative romantic and sexual relationships with four different men at different times, each one causing her hopes and expectations to rise, followed by disappointment and a return to the experience of loneliness.
The film’s opening scene shows her having sex with an imposing older man, a married banker who later turns out to be an insensitive egotist. Later, in a long sequence, she meets for drinks and dinner with another married man, a handsome and intense stage actor that she clearly likes, but their interactions become very complex and frustrating. A mysterious guy who starts dancing with her in a club, and then the curator of an art gallery, complete the picture. There are also other men who express interest, hit on her, try to impress her, or in one case, talk at her with condescension. Always there is the contrast between whatever sexual and romantic chemistry there may or may not be in her relationships, and the difficulty of navigating the more ordinary aspects of being and doing things together.
We do notice the faults and deficiencies of the men that Isabelle chooses, but we are also made to notice, eventually, the ways that Isabelle herself can sabotage a relationship that would otherwise seem to be going pretty well. Denis doesn’t make any of these insights and points of view exclusive of any others—they all go together, depicting the inherent suffering state of mind in the lonely seeker for love as an essentially wry and mournful phenomenon.
Denis wrote the screenplay with Christine Angot, and it’s a subtle woman-centered film that never projects any negative opinion about its main character’s impulses, and in fact doesn’t take any pro or con polemical stand at all. A conflicted middle aged woman wants to find the right man, and is repeatedly disappointed—surely this reflects a fairly common experience, but one that is nevertheless rarely made into the subject of a movie.
Denis’ style is very clear and matter-of-fact, not attempting to stir up an undue sense of drama; letting the action and dialogue speak for themselves. One might not realize until later that the picture has skillfully suspended the sense of time. We don’t how much time has elapsed between scenes. For example, one scene shows the very beginning of a relationship—in the next, she seems to have been in the relationship for some extended period: Weeks? Months? We don’t know.
Juliette Binoche, one of the three or four best French actresses alive, puts in another remarkable performance here, beautifully containing her character’s contradictions within tender openness, volubility, exasperation, and despite everything, hope.
Let the Sunshine In is the American distributor’s version of the title, which evokes, mistakenly I think, a song from the musical Hair. But the literal translation of the title is “The beautiful sun inside”: a clue, if you must have one, to the meaning of Denis’ ambiguous tone poem. In other words, what you are seeking from someone else is within you. That’s a trite bit of wisdom, even though it’s true. The amusing ending of the film, featuring a surprise appearance by another French movie star, reflects this idea that truth is sometimes conveyed through the banal. Let the Sunshine In presents without judgment the mystery of our unrealized desires.