Cannes 2017: Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In

“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,” begins Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. “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 intérieur), which stars a moody and moving Juliette Binoche as a 50-something artist and single 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.”

Jonathan Romney for Screen: “Originally conceived as an adaptation of critic-theorist Roland Barthes’s best-selling work A Lover’s Discourse, the film retains traces of Barthes’s ideas, notably—says Denis—the concept of ‘agony.’ But it’s something other than agony that disturbs the sleep of heroine Isabelle (Binoche), a recently divorced painter. Sharing care of her (barely glimpsed) young daughter with ex-husband François (Laurent Grevill), Isabelle explores her newly liberated sexuality with a series of men. . . . The film is less imagistic than Denis’s other work, much more verbal—although, amid the dense thickets of dialogue about desire and emotional compatibility, what’s often important is less what is said then the rhythm of the language.”

“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,” suggests David Ehrlich at IndieWire. “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.” Still, “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.”

“Binoche, like her compatriot Isabelle Huppert, is an actress so adept at serenely conducting inner turmoil that we risk taking their range of notes and tones for granted,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “Even by her standards, however, this is complex, quietly symphonic work, that extraordinary face as mesmerizing when in full, streaky-cheeked crying mode as when pensively staring at nothing in particular. . . . She’s often tongue-tied in love and hate alike, comic embarrassment and tragic insecurity written into every pause and stumble.”

Let the Sunshine In again finds Denis working with her regular collaborators on picture and sound, director of photography Agnés Godard and composer Stuart A. Staples of the band Tindersticks,” notes Bradley Warren at the Playlist. “Regrettably, the project gives neither talent a great deal to chew on; the majority of the film is a string of conversations composed in a series of close-ups and two-shots.”

For those who speak French, the Notebook’s has put up the post-screening Q&A (19’33”).

Update, 5/19: “Those familiar with Denis will most likely categorize [Let the Sunshine In] as one of her fluffier pieces, more along the lines of 2002’s Friday Night,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “More often than not, she prizes characterizations of dark, brooding, troubled types, from the Isabelle Huppert headlined White Material (2009) to the vampiric lovers on the lam of the phenomenal Trouble Every Day (2001). And through it all, Denis usually features Alex Descas, who is on hand for one of Binoche’s minor flings. But what a ways we are from the monstrous depravities of Denis’ last venture, 2013’s incest sex abuse drama Bastards, and the comparison only confirms its director’s own pronounced talents for stamping each genre or outlet with her particular swagger.”

Updates, 5/20: For the Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang, this is “an exquisite romantic dramedy that, for all its surface accessibility, ultimately demands (and rewards) as much wide-awake attention as any of her previous pictures. . . . Binoche has gone from strength to strength in recent years; still, if she has ever been more radiant or effortlessly expressive on screen than she is here, the example is not immediately coming to mind. And Denis, whose narratives can be daringly free-associative, has structured Let the Sunshine In elegantly and intuitively, as a series of richly human encounters that flow, meander and pulse with life.”

“Despite material that appears straightforward, Denis has made a film as slippery and elusive as most of her work,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at “Who Isabelle is seeing at a given moment becomes almost comically difficult to track. Increasingly hallucinatory, [Let the Sunshine In] at times suggests what might have happened if someone had staged fragments of an unproduced Nora Ephron script in the style of a late Alain Resnais film.”

Dispatching to Film Comment,Jonathan Romney focuses on Denis’s co-writer, novelist Christine Angot, “a key figure in the French school of writing known as ‘autofiction,’ in which novelistic textures and nonfictional confession or self-scrutiny blur confoundingly. Let the Sunshine In is not about a woman named Christine Angot, although I recognized a couple of characters, or variations on them, from her novel Rendez-vous. At any rate, the film’s protagonist, painter Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), could easily be an Angot surrogate: a recently divorced woman with a powerful erotic drive, a penchant for finding pleasure with the most unpromising partners, and an indefatigable penchant for verbalizing her emotions.”

“I’ve argued before that Denis’s sensibilities can be productively, thrillingly applied to just about any genre,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club, “but her stab at romantic comedy may be the exception that proves the rule—it oddly eschews just about every quality that we’ve come to associate with her sensual, elliptical style.”

“This is grownup filmmaking, more savory than sweet, seductive, oblique,” counters the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “All the romance, the eroticism, the exquisite dissatisfaction of not knowing how or whether to be in love, is all dispersed into talking and debate and the intellectual interplay of ideas.”

For Ed Frankl at the Film Stage, Sunshine is “a sophisticated, idiosyncratic, thoroughly modern interpretation of a French romantic farce, perceptive if not laugh-out-loud funny.” It “retains a level of intellectual rigor, sometimes to a fault: originally envisioned as a single sequence in a portmanteau film, its structure is inevitably episodic, and the lingering discussions have a knack of turning ponderous that had me grasping for meanings and interpretations. . . . When it comes together, however, individual scenes show off a sparkling script.”

“What’s fascinating about this film,” finds Bénédicte Prot at Cineuropa, “is that it’s got Claire Denis written all over it, with this unique way she has of painting a picture and sensitively awakening strong desire (what Roland Barthes says he ‘simulates’ as opposed to describes in his book, as he tries to make us aware of the characters’ movements in all their momentum), except that this time we’re dealing with desire of the heart.”

At the Notebook, you’ll find Lawrence Garcia and Kurt Walker’s video interview with Denis.

And at IndieWire, Graham Winfrey reports that Sundance Selects has picked up North American rights.

Update, 5/21:Sight & Sound editor Nick James: “In what is perhaps the most stylistically pared-down of Denis’s films, the camera, fixed mostly on Isabelle and the Other, sometimes half-circles around Binoche, who’s decked out in jet-black tousled hair, neat red leather jacket and spike-heeled thigh-high boots—a trifle tacky, for sure, but again a nailing of an archetype. Her performance is mostly, wonderfully low-key, giving us precisely enough so we don’t miss the shifting of her enigmatic personality from scene to scene.”

“Underlying the hi-jinx is a shrewdly observed depiction of the way goal-oriented sexual conquerors manipulate their more ingenuous mates,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman at Little White Lies. “Denis, radical as ever, is too worldly to settle her tone around soapboxing over bitterness or disappointment. This may be a film that wryly notes the wiles of male opportunists, but in its soul it is Isabelle’s film, and she is a profound character who only deepens with each painful ending.”

Update, 5/23: “I don’t want to weigh down a delicate comedy of manners by comparing it to the greatest French film of all time, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game,” writes Amy Taubin in a dispatch to Film Comment, “but there are parallels. Denis’s focus is narrower, but like Renoir, she depicts a society whose every action is a denial of the looming threat to its very existence. In the Renoir, the unacknowledged specter is World War II. In the Denis, well, take your pick, but the story I’ve been obsessively checking on my phone is about the irreversible collapse of the Antarctic ice shelf.”

Update, 5/24: “This isn’t necessarily Denis at her strongest,” writes Bilge Ebiri, dispatching back to the Village Voice, “but the ending is a genuine knockout. If the romantic comedy is practically defined by its journey towards resolution—by reassuring audiences that there’s always somebody out there for us—then Bright Sunshine In completely upends the formula, closing out instead on a delirious, hilarious vision of utter dissolution. To say more would be a crime. Suffice it to say that the movie’s mostly enjoyable, but its ending is immortal.”

At the House Next Door, Sam C. Mac makes note of “little allusions to the director’s own work and that of her closest peers—an act of retrospection that’s becoming a theme here at Cannes. Isabelle has a framed image of a bloodied wall from Denis’s Trouble Every Day hanging in her apartment, and at an art gallery, she and a possible romantic interest (Denis regular Alex Descas) admire and discuss the Skies, September ’10—September ’11 painting by Suzanne Osborne, wife of Denis’s go-to composer, Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples. There’s also a lovely dance scene at a night club, set to Etta James’s ‘At Last,’ that recalls similarly disarming moments in 35 Shots of Rum and Beau Travail. These auteurist signifiers will be imperceptible to many, but the purpose they seem to serve is to reaffirm that Let the Sunshine In is less a proper narrative than a very personally furnished space for Denis to conduct an exercise, a vignette-like assemblage of romantic situations—not unlike one of Hong Sang-soo’s conceptual sex comedies.”

Let the Sunshine In is one of the films discussed in the latest Film Comment Podcast (59’45”).

Cannes 2017 Index.And for news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

You have no items in your shopping cart