Claire Denis has never shied away from stories of love and desire, but her films tend to render such romantic ideals as atmospheric abstractions, or corrupt them with militaristic repression and fits of extreme violence. For example, the most erotically charged movie she’s ever made is about a caged bride who escapes from her Paris dungeon and bites strange men to death during sex (oh, yeah, and it stars Vincent Gallo).
Prior to Cannes, her most recent feature starred Lola Créton as a teenage girl who was raped with an ear of corn. “35 Shots of Rum” and “Friday Night” are both supremely tender works of art, but they’re also both haunted stories of loss and isolation, holes that can never be filled, let alone played for laughs.
Needless to say, it comes as something of a (pleasant) surprise that “Let the Sunshine In” plays like Claire Denis’ idea of a Nancy Meyers movie, complete with Juliette Binoche as her perpetually unsatisfied female lead and Gérard Depardieu as an obese fortune teller who tries to insert himself into her future. Of course, for all of its bourgeois charm and wine-induced eros, Claire Denis’ idea of a Nancy Meyers movie is still light years removed from an actual Nancy Meyers movie.
The story, such as it is, might seem like standard rom-com fodder, but its telling avoids every convention under the sun. For one thing, Depardieu shows up literally two minutes before the closing credits, which play over his only proper scene in the film. For another, he’s at least the fifth guy who’s tried to seduce our heroine since we first met her, and the happiness he brings her is even more ambivalent than the anxieties that have stalked her from the start. There are no montages, no pop songs, no kooky best friends, just a woman who can’t figure out how she can be so closed off and yet so quick to fall in love. A woman who often sleeps with married men and sheepishly admits that, with one of them, she can only orgasm by thinking about how much of a bastard he is.
Binoche, adding another iconic auteur to her peerless list of collaborators, is as radiantly enigmatic as ever in the role of Isabelle, a divorced artist who begins the movie mid-coitus with the oafish banker she’s been seeing. He’s not exactly a charmer — at one point he shows up at her door with a huge bouquet of flowers and declares: “I just got in from Brazil and I feel like banging you” — but Isabelle doesn’t always seem to mind.
On the contrary, her interest in him is only stoked by his disinterest in her. One of the film’s most arresting scenes finds Denis pivoting her camera from person to person during a long, nasty conversation so that Isabelle is only drawn back to the screen in response to her lover’s insults. “You’re charming,” he tells her, “but my wife is extraordinary.” “Oh honey, you say all the right things.”
Isabelle, who constantly tells us how tired she is, will soon find a new man for her late nights. He’s tired himself, an actor exhausted by the daily grind, and their stilted courtship (distilled into a beautifully fragmented sequence of furtive looks and restless hands) unfolds like a microcosm for the rest of this scattered movie, which isn’t carried by a plot so much as its protagonist’s restless impulses. By the time Isabelle finds herself on a field trip, amusingly exploding at her companions in a huff of insecure frustration, Hong Sang-soo seems as valid a reference point as Nancy Meyers.
But Denis is too much of an iconoclast to let even the most frivolous of her films feel like they owe anything to anyone else. Of course, there’s nothing like one of Denis’ achingly heartfelt dance scenes to remind you know who’s at the helm, and “Let the Sunshine In” features a doozy in which Isabelle is seduced by a complete stranger who finds her standing alone in the middle of a nightclub and swaying along to Etta James’ “At Last.” The more vulnerable or unlikable that Isabelle becomes, the more she feels a product of Denis’ singular imagination (this film was not, as previously reported, adapted from Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments”).
By the end, this feels like the rare romantic-comedy that goes out of its way to disparage its lead character, Denis cutting around certain scenes so that we only see Isabelle at her worst. But what, the film asks, is one to do when they’re not in love? How do you solve the problem of wanting you can’t have, or the even greater problem of not knowing what you want in the first place until it’s taken away from you? As slinky as the reflection of a neon sign trailing across the hood of a black sedan, this is a slight movie, shot on a whim just a few months before its world premiere, and it feels cobbled together in its search for some kind of meaning.
But if “Let the Sunshine In” doesn’t know where to look for the light, it certainly has a good bit of fun scrambling about in the darkness.
“Let the Sunshine In” premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.