Let the Sunshine In (2018) by Claire Denis
Review by Nathan Smith
No matter the supposed subject matter of a Claire Denis film – colonialism, the French foreign legion, cannibalism, cockfighting – her true subject matter is always much smaller. What concerns Denis most are not grand themes, but the minutia of human movement; think of Denis Lavant’s fortress of a gaze in Beau Travail, or Alex Descas’ dances with his roosters in No Fear, No Die. Her latest film may seem like a departure in story and scope, but Denis’ fascination with gestures and glances remains the same. Let the Sunshine In (the abysmal English stand-in for the French title Un beau soleil intérieur, which translates to “A Beautiful Sun Within”) appears to be a chronicle of a middle-aged artist’s failed romances, but it is actually a catalogue of appendages: hands against a stocking-covered thigh, a face, a doorknob.
The hand we see most often belongs to Isabelle, an accomplished painter looking for love in all the wrong places. She left her husband, with whom she shares a daughter, several years before, but that departure has done little to bring happiness into her life. Her ex chastises her for crying so much, worried that her endless tears will prove a bad influence on their child. It is through this veil of tears that we often see Isabelle. She cries when a lover spurns and insults her, when she struggles to get her thigh-high boots off, when her gaggle of art world friends get on her last nerve. Isabelle may be in the middle of her life, but she’s at the end of her wits.
And, after surveying the men with whom she associates, it’s not hard to see why. The first man with whom she has a dalliance, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), is a fussy banker who claims to adore Isabelle but remains upfront about his devotion to his “extraordinary” wife. The rest of the men are equally shitty: confused, noncommittal, uncertain, misleading. The often-painful conversations Isabelle has with these men recall the discomfort of a Hong Sang-soo movie. Let the Sunshine In has been described by many as Claire Denis’ romantic comedy, and while it’s not without its jokes, the humor one mines from this collection of exacerbated encounters may vary.
Every Claire Denis film has its song: “The Rhythm of the Night” in Beau Travail, “Nightshift” in 35 Shots of Rum, “Buffalo Soldier” in No Fear, No Die. In Let the Sunshine In, that song is “At Last,” the Etta James standard, which soundtracks Isabelle’s intimate dance with a stranger. Though this single moment supplies a ravishing respite from Isabelle’s feedback loop of loneliness, James’ declaration offers no true catharsis. No love comes along; Isabelle’s lonely days are not over. In the film’s final scene, she consults a fortuneteller (Gerard Depardieu), who suggests that the love of her life is still to come. The credits begin to roll over the scene, denying us the resolution we so desperately crave. Isabelle will continue, but her troubles will too.
As someone who has admired Denis’ work in the past, I looked forward to the release of Let the Sunshine In, which has received overwhelmingly positive notices from a number of voices I normally trust. But from its early moments, I felt a profound disconnect. I can hear Denis’ voice in the film, particularly in that emphasis on hands as they touch the body, feet as they enter a room, Binoche’s lip as it quivers. But what in my past experiences with her work has felt worthwhile this time felt like an empty exercise in generic variation. Agnes Godard’s images, which are normally among the richest cinema has to offer, feel too flat, too clean, more reflective of the empty men Isabelle is surrounded by than the emotional hurricane she finds herself within. Isabelle’s life is filled with superficial scumbags, but a film cannot live on superficial scumbags alone.
Only in the final sequence, when Depardieu and Binoche trade electric chemistry in an interaction that seems both crucial and incidental, does the affair begin to feel meaningful. The film becomes more beautiful in this moment too, as the sun’s warm light fills Binoche’s radiant face. Depardieu’s introduction comes only in the scene before; we see him dumped by a woman in a moment that recalls Isabelle’s earlier frustrations with her own lovers. This scene, and the interaction that ends the film, suggests that Isabelle is not alone in her loneliness; the loop she finds herself caught in has swept up others as well.
Perhaps it is this loop that explains my sense of disconnect. Perhaps I am not old enough to feel Isabelle and her pain; though I have felt loneliness, perhaps I have not felt a loneliness so profound, so inescapable, so cyclical. I am frustrated with myself for not finding in this film what others seem to, and I have strained my eyes to see the sun they find within it. But I can’t detect it. Maybe it isn’t there at all, at least not inherently so; maybe the viewer must let that light in and find their own experiences within the framework Denis offers. Or maybe I just need to have lived more life to understand it. Until then, I will take pleasure in the details Denis gives me – the soft hands, the gentle touch, the eyes locked across a room – rather than the whole itself.