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Bad Boyfriends

Erika Balsom on Claire Denis's Let the Sunshine In (2017)

IF YOU’VE HEARD ANYTHING about Let the Sunshine In (2017), it is probably that Claire Denis’s new film is a romantic comedy, and that it is inspired by Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, a hyper-referential 1977 book that theorizes the language of love. So why reiterate this? Out of protest. Neither statement provides any real insight into this seductive and subtle film, but both figure as symptoms of the problem that a movie like this—which is to say, one about a mature woman’s sexuality, desire, and happiness—poses for a critical establishment that continues to have firm if misguided ideas about which subjects are fit for “serious” cinema.

Let the Sunshine In follows Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a recently divorced painter, through a series of disappointing affairs. Although the film is about romance and is occasionally funny, it is far from a romantic comedy. There is no meet-cute, no implicit moralizing, no happy ending. Indeed, Denis’s every move seems tailored to diverge from how the perennial problem of forming the heterosexual couple is typically represented, down to her nuanced choreography of the frustrations and pleasures of sex. To corral the film into the maligned genre of the rom-com accomplishes only one thing: branding it a minor work, a chick flick. The recourse to Barthes bespeaks the same anxiety, but from another angle, elevating the film by asserting its indebtedness to the high-cultural bona fides of poststructuralism, as if to say, “This isn’t just about a fiftysomething woman’s sex life.” Perhaps the book was important for Denis, perhaps not; any trace of it in the film’s form or content is difficult to discern.

Put it down or prop it up, either way Let the Sunshine In is deprived of consideration on its own terms. It is nothing more and nothing less than a film about a fiftysomething woman’s sex life, a work that takes a subject so rarely confronted and renders it with remarkable empathy, complexity, and sensuality. Isabelle is a mother, but this is scarcely mentioned, her daughter appearing for only an instant behind the glass of a car window. Denis allows her protagonist an emotional and practical freedom, never punishing her for her exploratory openness, instead affirming it while registering its toll. Isabelle drifts from one encounter to the next, trying to find something that works. We see her strut in thigh-high boots; we also see her awkwardly contort her body to take them off, a scene that isn’t played for laughs but rather speaks to the movie’s attentiveness to a range of experience.

Faced with an accumulating number of romantic failures—affairs with married men, sex with her ex, unwanted advances, cross-class problems—Isabelle is melancholic. Weeping is less a distinct activity than it is a near-constant state that bleeds across her whole life, permeating even dancing, laughter, and discussion. This soft sadness is Isabelle’s own, however, and not a response to any pity or repulsion felt toward her by friends, lovers, or the film itself. On the contrary, she is the source of a captivating radiance, amplified by the purring cinematography of Agnès Godard, Denis’s longtime collaborator. Binoche endows her character with a palpable intelligence, making use of her whole body as a means of expression, while Godard’s camera stays close to the flesh in an intimacy that evades objectification. Against the misogynist grain of so much cinema, Let the Sunshine In places no blame on Isabelle, makes no judgement. She is not the problem, nor is her gender or age. Rather, she possesses, as the original French title would have it, a “beautiful inner sun.” The generosity of this film resides in the knowledge that we are all imperfect, trying to find ways to live less damaged lives, together.

Denis is no stranger to finishing her films with transformative codas: without a doubt, the dance sequence that concludes Beau Travail (1999) is one of film history’s greatest endings. Let the Sunshine In also throws a final curveball, in the form of a cameo by Gérard Depardieu in the unlikely role of a fortune-teller. Whether it hits the mark is debatable. Isabelle listens eagerly as he tells her things she already knows and slyly frames himself as her next paramour. At first glance, Denis seems to succumb to the tropes of male mastery and female desperation she had so assiduously avoided. Yet Depardieu is emphatically not one of the director’s regulars, nor is his bloated stardom the kind of acting that tends to interest her. Particularly given that the credits roll while this conversation rambles on—as if to squash its poisonous banality and distance the viewer—is it too much to read Depardieu as an interloper from another kind of cinema, attempting to derail Isabelle as she tries to live her own story? That might be a stretch. But at the very least, and especially if you are more skeptical about clairvoyance than Isabelle seems to be, this strange conclusion might lay bare something the whole of Let the Sunshine In responds to and disrupts: Men’s narratives about women’s lives are often merely self-serving charlatanism, too readily accepted as truth.

Let the Sunshine In opens in New York on April 27 and in Los Angeles on May 4.

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