Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In (2017) is one of the great films about middle-aged loneliness, specifically—though not exclusively—as women feel it. It’s not a dating movie, though there’s dating in it. And it’s not a feeling-sorry-for-oneself movie, though there are moments when its heroine, a fiftyish divorced painter named Isabelle, does feel sorry for herself, and not unreasonably. But what Denis and her star, Juliette Binoche, capture here is really a texture of joyous discontent, the sense of basically being happy with yourself as you are, yet feeling that the sea, which once rushed toward your feet, is subtly and gradually retreating. You may still be beautiful, as Binoche’s Isabelle certainly is. But beauty has little to do with it. It’s as if the person inside you is no longer visible from the outside, even though you know that person better than you ever have. Why, you may be asking, doesn’t anyone get me?
Isabelle asks that question over and over in Let the Sunshine In, sometimes almost outright. She’s a woman on her own, though there’s no shortage of men cycling through her life. A self-absorbed actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) flirts with her in the most desultory way by talking in circles, not so much to her as around her. She plays along, following his conversational spirals until it makes her nuts: “We said things, then we said the opposite!” she cries out in frustration. She’s relieved when they kiss and he finally shuts up. “It feels so good to stop all that talking,” she says, almost with a sense of wonder—until the next time she sees him, when he starts right up again.
Then there’s the sweet, shy, portly gent (Philippe Katerine)—he’s probably younger than Isabelle, though in his bucket hat and jaunty ascot he seems preternaturally older—who approaches her gingerly whenever they run into each other at the local fish store. His mother has left him a house in the country; would she like to come visit? The answer is a polite, but absolute, no. The man who drives her craziest is the boorish married banker (Xavier Beauvois) who elbows into her life like an entitled bear whenever he wants sex. She craves affection from him, but his novelty is wearing off, fast. As they chat at a bar, he announces, even though she hasn’t asked, that he has no plans to leave his wife for her: “You enchant me, but my wife is extraordinary.” Her face—just a second earlier luminous and open, receptive to any reasonable possibility—becomes hard, like a lustrous, pearlescent seashell. This man has seriously undervalued her. What on earth is she doing wasting time with him?
“It’s human to crave companionship. But how many allowances are we supposed to make for the imperfections, great and small, of the people who cross our path?”
That moment distills the essence of Let the Sunshine In: It’s human to crave companionship. But how many allowances are we supposed to make for the imperfections, great and small, of the people who cross our path? The picture doesn’t have a conventional plot; Isabelle’s face, showing quicksilver gradations between self-protectiveness and openness, is the plot. We find her at a specific time in her life, an era of strange dates and unsatisfactory sex. She does, of course, have a life outside these men: she’s a mother, sharing custody of a daughter with her ex-husband, and she’s successful and respected in her field. The point, maybe, is that women are often told—or try to convince themselves—“Shouldn’t that be enough?” But the desire for a romantic life can’t always be wished away.
Denis cowrote the script with novelist Christine Angot; it’s adapted, loosely, from Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, whose subtitle, fitting for a compendium of ruminations on the nature and components of love, is Fragments. The “fragments” in Barthes’s 1977 book include compassion, jealousy, and languor, though not all of them are even nouns: you’ll also find unbearable, monstrous, and pigeonholed. In an introductory section, Barthes offers some guidance as to how he has organized these fragments: “Throughout any love life, figures occur to the lover without any order, for on each occasion they depend on an (internal or external) accident. Confronting each of these incidents (what ‘befalls’ him), the amorous subject draws on the reservoir (the thesaurus?) of figures, depending on the needs, the injunctions, or the pleasures of his image-repertoire. Each figure explodes, vibrates in and of itself like a sound severed from any tune—or is repeated to satiety, like the motif of a hovering music.”
Who, you might ask, could make a movie out of that? Perhaps the woman who, in her youth, as she revealed in a 2002 interview for the French magazine Sofa, wanted to be a rock star—but not just any rock star: “I studied economics, it was completely suicidal. Everything pissed me off. And at the same time, I had this kind of crazy way of doing things. I wanted to go and live in England so I could be Eric Burdon, the singer from the Animals.” Or perhaps the woman who ended her glorious 1999 film Beau travail, a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, with a spring-loaded dance sequence that bursts, practically, from nowhere: when Denis Lavant’s uptight, resentful Foreign Legion sergeant Galoup shrugs off the constraints of the mortal world, he enters a disco heaven, a place where Fred Astaire twirls, rather than regimented marching and bed making, are the order of the day. (This is a heaven with no harp music; the celestial melody that gets Galoup going is Corona’s 1993 dance hit “The Rhythm of the Night.”) Denis can make a movie out of, or about, just about anything: cockfighting (No Fear, No Die, 1990), lovesick cannibals (Trouble Every Day, 2001), an impenetrable, unlikable, ailing man who sets out to get himself a black-market heart and find his lost son (The Intruder, 2004, which also happens to be adapted from some rather out-there source material, an autobiographical essay by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy).
Born in Paris but raised in West Africa, Denis has been making movies for thirty years, and though she returns to certain themes—the moral complications of colonialism, the vulnerable state of being a perpetual outsider—there is no such thing as a typical Claire Denis movie. Let the Sunshine In could be considered a fraternal twin to her Friday Night (2002), in which a thirtysomething woman (Valérie Lemercier), about to move in with her boyfriend, chances into a tender, life-changing one-night stand with a stranger (Vincent Lindon) in the midst of a Paris traffic jam. A restless, questioning spirit motivates both movies. Even though it seems futile to search for what’s missing in our lives—the harder we look, the less likely we are to find it—complacency is more dangerous. Being stuck, in traffic or in a life, requires that we push our way out; if we don’t use those muscles, we may forget how to, and that’s the beginning of the end.
In Let the Sunshine In, Binoche’s Isabelle flexes those muscles when, upon her return from another disappointing assignation with her banker lover, her tears of frustration find their way out in a line of dialogue, almost an incantation she recites to herself: “I want to find love. One real love.” No one is right for Isabelle: not the banker, not the fish-market bachelor, not the actor. One man, the kind and gorgeous Marc—played by Denis regular Alex Descas—floats in her art-world circle and seems promising, but he is reluctant to be in a relationship with her. At an artists’ retreat, she meets a smoldering, spooky gent (Paul Blain) on the dance floor. It’s an Etta James song, “At Last,” that brings them together; they drift close, as if in a trance. (James may be Isabelle’s patron saint: a framed album cover bearing the singer’s image hangs in her apartment.) But that romance doesn’t last either. Isabelle sabotages it in a scene that’s half-funny, half-painful. She can’t stop overthinking, she can’t stop asking questions; she worries this particular relationship into oblivion.
“Denis, working with her usual cinematographer, the supremely gifted Agnès Godard, lavishes love on Binoche: Her skin is like cream with drops of moonlight mixed in.”
The demands Isabelle places on others and on herself are sometimes maddening. But then, even in a quasi comedy like this one, Denis can’t help challenging the audience. She connects scenes in ways that require us to make small leaps: the elements of Isabelle’s life, big and small—her trips to the fish store, her dates with the banker—are like free-floating molecules of experience, more similar to the ways we experience day-to-day life than to how we usually see it in the movies. (The movie’s structure is also a reflection of the way Barthes links his ideas.) But Denis isn’t trying to be obtuse—it’s more as if she’s leading us in a dance. In a 2000 interview with the critic Jonathan Romney, the filmmaker insisted that she doesn’t set out to make her films difficult to understand. “I am not trying to make it hard. I hate that. But I am trying to float on the impression of what a story could be,” she said. “For me, cinema is not made to give a psychological explanation, for me cinema is montage, is editing. To make blocks of impressions or emotion meet with another block of impression or emotion and put in between pieces of explanation, to me it’s boring.”
And like the revered New Wave filmmaker she worked with early in her career, Jacques Rivette, Denis is always alive to beauty. Rivette loved looking at women, not lasciviously but with a languorous gaze like a sigh. Denis, working here with her usual cinematographer, the supremely gifted Agnès Godard, lavishes similar love on Binoche: Her skin is like cream with drops of moonlight mixed in. Her face—open and responsive, always receiving signals as well as sending them out—is itself an elegant question.
You need an actor as sensual as Binoche to make a film like this work. Moviegoers sometimes respond with outrage when a beautiful character is lonely or keeps hooking up with “loser” men: A woman that gorgeous couldn’t possibly have such bad luck in real life! She’d have a great boyfriend in ten minutes! But Binoche’s beauty is the very thing that makes Isabelle’s predicament so believable. Men see her—but do they really see her? They want her—but do they really want her? All her doubts and insecurities rise to the surface, like fish nibbling at algae, when a girlfriend tells her that she and her husband, together for a long while, are doing great, getting along “better and better in every way.” After the women part, Isabelle, riding the subway home, turns those words over in her head: “In every way”? Everyone else is having better sex than she is, and more of it. Everyone else has found great love. Her obsession with this casual remark is silly, but most of us have felt this way at one time or another. Beauty is never a shield against loneliness; it’s an arrow that can pierce any heart.
There is no resolution in Let the Sunshine In, at least not the happy-ending sort. Loneliness is part of life: we’ve been told that so many times that we barely know what it means. What’s more, loneliness is probably different for everybody. Is yours a state of being that comes and goes? Or is it a low-grade hum in the background, like a heater or humidifier, a thing you simply learn to live with? Let the Sunshine In covers all shapes and sizes of loneliness, but it does offer a few drops of comfort in the words of a fortune-teller, played by an affable Gérard Depardieu: in rolling loops of dialogue he tells Isabelle that some of her old lovers will return and some new ones will step in. Her face brightens when she likes what she hears, and a silvery shadow crosses it when she doesn’t. But his chief message to her is to be “open.” The movie’s French title, Un beau soleil intérieur—or A Beautiful Inner Sun—is more descriptive, and more fitting, than its English one. We go out looking for light when we should be focused on making our own, as fireflies do. Light attracts light, if we’re lucky. And if we’re not, then at least we’re shining. Why not make our own sun, when it seems the one above has forsaken us?