At Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fr 4 May 2018
A new film by Claire Denis is always greeted with intense interest, as a near full-to-capacity screening at the Filmhouse would attest. One of the great chroniclers of arthouse outsider-dom, Denis surprises with a seemingly straightforward romantic comedy that nevertheless revolves around a familiar and virulent case of classically Gallic ennui.
Let the Sunshine In follows the numerous romantic misadventures of Isabelle (Juliette Binoche). An artist, with the mercurial temperament that would imply, she gives of herself freely and passionately, but they all fall short in some way, usually by still being very, very married.
A filmmaker very focused on the physical side of cinema, from the ritualistic military exercises of Beau Travail to the gory snuff movie aesthetic of Trouble Every Day, Denis opens with a frank and comic sex scene between Isabelle and lover Vincent (Xavier Beauvois). It’s a strong, direct opening scene that sets a tone which flits delicately between a spectacularly French whimsical sex comedy, and a character study of a woman trying to paper over more serious cracks in her foundations.
Isabelle is self-centred, infuriating, constantly lachrymose, and needy. As played by the perpetually gorgeous Binoche, she’s also charming and alluring in equal measures, and it’s no surprise that she appears to have men queuing round the block. These include portly, entitled Vincent, an unnamed actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who is younger but wrestles openly with his desire for Isabelle, her much-older ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill), and other admirers.
It’s occasionally preposterous but has a ring of truth, perhaps because it’s drawn from the experiences of co-writer Christine Angot, and the philosopher Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Denis also wisely focuses on Isabelle’s face whenever she can, with Binoche more than capable of conveying hidden depths to the character.
Let the Sunshine In will, of course, be embraced far more by critics than audiences. It’s a languid film, which lets its character languish without a real sense of forward momentum, other than dangled tidbits of promise, that could just as easily become Damoclean threats to Isabelle’s precarious self-worth. However, there are several scenes that are genuinely hilarious, such as repeated meetings with a flamboyant, but obviously dissolute admirer at a fishmonger, and a uniquely odd therapy session with a now literal heavyweight of French cinema.
It’s also great to see a film that takes more mature women seriously as sexual beings; and avoids the trap of obvious wish-fulfillment into which a more mainstream movie would plunge. Isabelle’s a great character, expertly played. Not always likeable, but fully-rounded and believable, thanks to a brilliant coming together of director and actor. A mature, off-kilter and original take on the romantic comedy, Let the Sunshine In is a low-key delight.