NYFF 2017: Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In

“Claire Denis’s new film, Let the Sun Shine In, about a middle-aged woman’s romantic adventures, refracts personal experience in the form of a modernistic screwball comedy,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “Juliette Binoche brings luminous intensity and wicked humor to the role of Isabelle, who is first seen naked in bed, under a man who’s pumping away in vain. From the start, Denis—who co-wrote the script with the novelist Christine Angot—dramatizes with audacious wit the physically awkward and emotionally colossal details of sex and romance.”

“The film is inspired by Roland Barthes’s 1977 exegesis The Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, a clinical examination of love that’s comprised of quotes and musings from a medley of canonical and esoteric writers,” notes Greg Cwik at Slant. “Turning an unadaptable work of postmodern literature into an incandescent cinematic reverie on love’s follies as a quick side project could have been a masturbatory exercise in intellectualism, but Denis finds the inexorable beauty (and sadness) in that most corrosive and fugacious of feelings. For Isabelle, love is a toxic need. Barthes, not known for sentimentality, discusses love as an intellectual pursuit, an aching inevitability, one to ponder rather than feel. Denis is also not known for producing art of a cuddly nature—her career is rife with barbarities, with the dissolution of lives and loves—yet Let the Sunshine In is easily the most empathetic, heartfelt film of her illustrious career.”

Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey notes that “the characters never really stop talking; they’re constantly second-guessing, trapping, and bluffing, and though Isabelle is alternately talking to former lovers, current lovers, would-be lovers, and won’t-be lovers, Denis is fascinated by both the differences in these interactions and the subtle similarities, the hostilities and half-truths that seem universal.”

“And just as feelings or insights can shift depending on context,” writes Chloe Lizotte at Screen Slate, “Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard develop a new cinematic grammar for the film’s lengthy dialogues—the camera swoops evenly back and forth between speaker and listener, expresser and interpreter, and occasionally even crosses the axis to shake up perspective. It simulates the experience of turning a conversation over in your mind, driving yourself crazy rethinking all of its facets.”

Earlier: Reviews from Cannes. And for those who read French, Anne Diatkine talks with Denis, Angot, and Binoche for Libération.

Update:Nick Pinkerton for Reverse Shot:

That Denis can produce a work that, without a trace of preciousness, is equal parts indebted to Barthes and Chicago blues, connected as arm is to shoulder to the film-historical legacy of post-New Wave French filmmaking, is only further justification for claim that the 71-year-old is the greatest working director over the last two decades. This estimation is not, apparently, universal. It might be taken as a slight, for instance, that Let the Sun Shine In premiered in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section at Cannes this year, and not in Competition. No surprise, perhaps, as Denis’s film is the sort of thing usually discussed as a “minor,” the appellation usually applied to movies about love and intimacy, topics of almost universal relevance, as opposed to “major” works that indulge in the overblown oversimplification of barely understood historical periods, interminable “sculpting with time,” or the espousal of revolutionary creeds to well-heeled film festival audiences who know in their secret hearts that they will never in their lives participate in a violent uprising of any kind. It is also a comedy, and a comedy coming from Denis is a concept that has surprised several commentators who’ve apparently forgotten that the director included the finest fart gag of the 21st century in 35 Shots of Rum (2008).

Meantime, there’s a Claire Denis season on this month at the Glasgow Film Theatre.

Update, 10/11: Reading Angot’s Incest “clarifies some things about where Sunshine is coming from,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. “A controversial cultural institution in France, Angot practices auto-fiction; the title should be taken literally, but it takes a while to get there. Much of the book marches through a relationship and its end, taking the effective form of a long nervous breakdown. A typical excerpt: ‘She was crying, I had prepared some lines to read to her: Everything in this world is suffering, only love is a reason to live, Racine tells us it’s forbidden. And to explain my recent behavior, Dario Fo: the love of paradox, as is well known, often leads to inconsistency.’ This furious jumble of impulse, where attraction and repulsion don’t quite negate each other, is the film’s subject, and while Isabelle isn’t precisely Angot, she’s not that far off as far as I can tell.”

Update, 10/14: For Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing briefly on the film for the Chicago Reader, “this rapturous and faintly comic concerto for Juliette Binoche may well be the most pleasurable and original film Claire Denis has made since Beau Travail (1999). . . . The filmmaker's skill in framing her protagonist's various trysts, moods, and dialogues, sometimes even setting them to music, is matchless.”

Update, 10/16: “It had never occurred to me that watching Juliette Binoche turn men down for an hour and a half would be enough plot for a movie, let alone one so rich, hilarious and sensual,” writes Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com. “And yet here's this future classic in waiting, the most fun she's had as a director since asking Denis Levant to feel the ‘Rhythm of the Night.’”

Update, 10/17:Nick Schager talks with Denis for the Daily Beast.

Update, 11/6: “Approaching her new genre with formal ingenuity and from her typically philosophical vantage point, Denis establishes once and for all the romantic comedy’s capacity to generate major cinema,” writes Alex Weintraub for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Unlike Denis’s earlier masterpiece, Beau Travail, which loosely resembled but drastically departed from Herman Melville’s unfinished Billy Budd,Let the Sunshine In might be better described as a loving retort to its source text rather than an adaptation of it. It seems to grapple with many of the figures and propositions presented in Fragments, but Denis transposes them into her film as narrative content.”

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