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Like a Judd Apatow thriller or a Michael Haneke kids flick, the concept of a Claire Denis comedy at first sounds like a contradiction in terms. After all, the 71-year-old French auteur, whose film Beau Travail remains one of the great works of the last few decades, has taken an especially grim turn as of late, with movies like Bastards, White Material and The Intruder exploring some of the darker sides of contemporary humanity.
So it comes as quite a surprise that Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil interieur), which stars a moody and moving Juliette Binoche as a 50-something artist and divorced mother who has an extremely hard time getting – let alone knowing – what she wants, can be funny, rather light on its feet, yet incredibly perceptive about the very complicated lives and relationships we lead, especially when they involve members of the opposite sex.
Co-written with novelist Christine Angot (Incest), whose voice can be heard in the series of casually cruel, at times desperately hilarious conversations that Binoche’s character engages in with a merry-go-round of likely and unlikely suitors, this is clearly Denis’ chattiest effort yet, marking an about-face for a director whose oeuvre has defined itself, in part, through its swooning visuals and deft aesthetic touch.
Here, it’s as if she were venturing into Noah Baumbach or Hong Sang-soo territory, with a movie that relies almost solely on dialogue and performance to get its point across. In that sense, Sunshine may initially seem off-putting to fans looking for more of the same, but the film slowly but surely works its charms, painting a rich, emotionally complex portrait of a woman who, like Denis herself, will not let herself be boxed in.
The first time we see Isabelle (Binoche), she’s having sex with a banker (fellow auteur Xavier Beauvois) in what is probably the most explicit scene in the film. But what could be a moment of intimate bliss soon turns sour when neither Isabelle nor her lover appear to be getting what they need out of the encounter. This comedy of amorous errors will be more or less repeated throughout: Each time we think, or hope, that Isabelle is finally connecting with her significant other, things fall apart.
Sometimes it’s her fault and sometimes it’s theirs. Either way, in almost every scene Denis and Angot channel the utter incompatibility of Isabelle’s needs with those of the men she’s involved with — the banker, an actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), her ex (Laurent Grevill), a fellow artist (Bruno Podalydes), to name a few — in an endless game of quid pro quos that stretches all the way to the end of the closing credits (in a scene featuring Gerard Depardieu at his devious best).
In what may be the film’s most bravura sequence, Isabelle meets the young and swarthy actor after a performance, after which she manages to painstakingly cajole him back to her place. But as soon as she busts out the champagne, he tries to leave, until he decides to stay again, and then for the whole night, only to blow her off the next morning. He’s as uncertain as she is, longing to go back to “the before” when they didn’t have sex — like most men Isabelle meets, the actor is already with somebody else — forever in pursuit of something that will be impossible to obtain.
Such material is ripe for comedy, and Denis reveals a real knack for staging sequences that grow increasingly absurd — often in a dark and depressive way — with each passing bon mot. The more we get to know Isabelle, the more mysterious and even exasperating she becomes (especially when she dumps one guy purely because someone told her to), yet that doesn’t mean she hasn’t won us over by the end.
Very much like Isabelle Huppert in Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come, Binoche blissfully portrays a woman “of a certain age” trying to find happiness at a time when it feels like a rare commodity. Most men she’s surrounded by don’t want to commit, yet Isabelle isn’t necessarily willing to commit either, and Binoche expertly channels the constant uncertainty her character faces. You can read it in her tired eyes, in the weary way she regards some of her lovers — but also in the way she can suddenly glow, like in a memorable scene where Isabelle dances with a complete stranger (Paul Blain) to Etta James’ “At Last.”
Confined mostly to dialogue sequences, Sunshine lacks the visual oomph of Denis’ best films and feels closest to 2002’s Vendredi soir, another more character-based effort. Regular DP Agnes Godard nonetheless captures some of the gray sadness of the Paris settings, while a jazzy score by the Tindersticks‘ Stuart A. Staples adds to the gloomy tone. For admirers of Denis, it’s probably not a shock that she hasn’t made the cheeriest comedy in history. What’s surprising is how much her jokes can touch us.
Production companies: Curiosa Films, FD Production, Ad Vitam, Versus Production
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Gerard Depardieu, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Sandrine Dumas, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas
Director: Claire Denis
Screenwriters: Claire Denis, Christine Angot
Producer: Olivier Delbosc
Director of photography: Agnes Godard
Production designer: Arnaud de Moleron
Costume designer: Judy Shrewsbury
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Composer: Stuart A. Staples
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: Films Distribution
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