We Won’t Grow Old Together: Claire Denis’ “Let the Sunshine In”
“It is my desire I desire, and the loved being is no more than its tool.”
―Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
Loosely based on Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), Claire Denis’ pint-sized exploration of romantic longing and self-sabotage is a major work disguised as a minor one. The plot is episodic and deceptively simple. Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle, a recently divorced abstract painter who embarks on a series of trysts with a variety of men: a brusque, married banker (Xavier Beauvois) whose borderline abusive behavior is a turn-on for Isabelle; a neurotic and weak-willed young actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle); a classist and controlling art curator (Bruno Podalydès); and an opportunistic fortune teller (Gérard Depardieu). Some of these encounters are rapturous, some are destructive, but what remains constant is that the men who orbit Isabelle are in myriad ways self-involved, manipulative, and deeply flawed.
At the forefront of Let the Sunshine In (2017) is the one-sided nature of romantic relationships — the way men project onto women, seeing them not as independent agents with their own thoughts and desires but merely as reflections of their own needs and insecurities. There is a significant undercurrent of masochism to Isabelle’s pursuit of love — at one point, she confesses to a female friend that she can only achieve orgasm with one of her wealthy lovers by thinking about her own disgust at his narcissism and greed. Each encounter provides a small charge of ecstasy that quickly dissipates, and it is this chemical charge that propels Isabelle forward from disappointment to disappointment. In her pursuit of mutually satisfying affection, she instead only re-affirms her own isolation rather than quelling it. Isabelle is one of the richest and most fully realized protagonists in Denis’ body of work — aggressive yet vulnerable, self-pitying without being pathetic, self-aware yet unable to take the steps necessary to improve her situation, solipsistic yet oddly noble. Denis’ agile handheld camerawork remains remarkably attuned to the natural rhythms of everyday conversation and the nuances of body language, framing the characters in roomy wide shots (Denis tends to eschew conventional cutting in favor of continuous slow pans that keep the flow of the performances uninterrupted).
Barthes’ work is a kaleidoscope of perspectives drawn from various philosophers and writers, yet Denis’ close attention to the intricacies of environment, gesture, and texture grounds these intellectual musings firmly in the sensuality of lived experience, resulting in some moments of ecstatic, fleeting beauty in what is otherwise a cynical film: extended sequences of Isabelle splashing paint on a giant canvas; an impromptu dance sequence between Isabelle and a stranger at a dingy nightclub set to Ella James’ “At Last” (providing further evidence that Denis is the greatest living filmmaker at crafting dance sequences). Isabelle’s inability to sustain such moments of elation for a lengthy period of time, coupled with a refusal to settle for a more quotidian form of romance, is the crux of her malaise. This tension between euphoria and the everyday is established in the very first scene, which sees a bout of passionate sex between Isabelle and a beau interrupted by his inability to climax. His resulting insecurity leads him to probe her about the sexual prowess of her ex-boyfriends, killing off the last traces of sexual energy that remained.
Let the Sunshine In marks Denis’ second foray into digital cinematography, following 2013’s Bastards, yet here the oppressive nocturnal cityscapes have been replaced with a much warmer, diurnal palette — all sunlit street corners and bar floors glistening with reflected light from wine bottles and glass surfaces. Yet, despite the apparently lighter tone, Denis’ jabs at the insularity and solipsism of Isabelle’s upper-middle-class milieu can be as lacerating as the satire of the monstrosities of late capitalist entrepreneurs in that earlier film. Like Maurice Pialat and Philippe Garrel (whose recent Lover for a Day bears more than a passing resemblance to Let the Sunshine In), Denis is a filmmaker of radical economy and ellipses. The film is thoroughly grounded in Isabelle’s perspective, but the other periphery characters seem to be just as full and complete. A single interstitial shot being enough to evoke an entire inner life, as if any character (no matter how minor) could be the subject of an entire separate feature. This is a decidedly skeptical film, with one of the most comically bleak endings in recent memory, yet it radiates a sense of empathy and generosity that feels uniquely Denis’.