Combustible Celluloid
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With: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Sandrine Dumas, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas, Laurent Grévill, Bruno Podalydès, Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Gérard Depardieu
Written by: Christine Angot, Claire Denis, based on a book by Roland Barthes
Directed by: Claire Denis
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 94
Date: 05/04/2018

Let the Sunshine In (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Words of Love

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Claire Denis is one of my favorite filmmakers currently working, and here she is with her latest movie, Let the Sunshine In, which is so drastically different in so many ways from her previous work. I find myself struggling for words. Am I disappointed in the movie because of its new direction? Should I go on faith and embrace it? I can definitely say that I liked it, and that it gives my heart tingles to recall it right now, but where does it rank with the rest of her work? Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning, and worry about posterity later.

Let the Sunshine In resembles, in some ways, a typical romance. Denis's remarkable Friday Night was also a romance, but a most atypical one. It took place in a traffic jam on a freezing Paris night, and features very little dialogue. That movie was defined by its space and its tone, its mood, but the new movie is filled with talk, takes giant leaps in time, and pays little regard to space as Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) takes on many different lovers. The movie opens with a realistic sex scene, the pudgy Victor (Xavier Beauvois) pounding away on top of her, each partner impatiently waiting for the other to finish.

Later, in a bar, Victor bosses around a young bartender and tells Isabelle that, though she charms him, he'll never leave his wife. She dumps him and later tells a friend that she only found him alluring because of what a bastard he was. Then she hooks up with an actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle). Their night together sends her into bliss, which is quickly destroyed — in the space of one cut — as the actor expresses regret over their encounter. She also sleeps with her ex, François Mandelbaum (Laurent Grévill), with whom she has a daughter. He has keys to her place and sometimes shows up for a quick shag. Interestingly, the daughter is shown only once, as she quickly says goodbye to her mother through a rolled-up car window.

Finally, there is the shaggy, pained-looking Sylvain (Paul Blain), a little like Mick Jagger, who sweeps her off her feet on the dance floor in a bar, to the tune of Etta James's "At Last." It's a romantic moment, but it ends, weeks later, in demands and ultimatums. Then, she shyly holds hands with a friend, Marc (Alex Descas), and he leans in for a kiss, but it stops there. At home, she collapses on the couch and wonders why she just can't find love. That's all she really wants.

As the movie winds to a close, Denis suddenly shows a couple we haven't seen yet (Gérard Depardieu and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), breaking up in the front seat of their parked car. It turns out that Depardieu is Denis, a psychic, who spends the final stretch of the movie — perhaps 15 minutes? — telling Isabelle's fortune. (She will, eventually, meet "the one," he assures her.) The scene takes place in simple two-shot, and the credits begin to roll over their conversation. It's an audacious closer, and any cinema buff would tell you that a standard two-shot and lots of dialogue does not good cinema make. But this time... maybe Denis has broken some rules? In a good way?

Denis's color palette here is nothing special, focusing largely on neutral colors, and her setups don't particularly pay much attention to physical space (there's not much texture), whereas her previous movies were defined by their physical space. The movie is filled with dialogue and conversations at cafes and restaurants and bars. It's a lot of talk, and a lot of subtitles for English-speakers. Further, we learn that Denis and co-screenwriter Christine Angot were inspired by a book by the great French thinker Roland Barthes (A Lover's Discourse), indicating that all these conversations are meant to untangle that sticky, alluring, undefinable thing known as love.

So every scene in Let the Sunshine In grapples with love, and, especially, brilliantly, the movies' vision of love, and the idea of a One True Love that lasts forever. Those usually come in the final moments of standard movies, and then time sort of remains frozen in a forever happiness. But time does not freeze, and love needs to find ways to change and adapt, requiring work on the part of us clueless humans. That's all Isabelle is doing here, just working, hammering her way through affection, touch, sex, crushes, bliss, disappointment, hurt, and all the rest of it, as time trudges on.

I'm left with the images of Juliette Binoche, and she, for me, is what finally makes the film something special. She is now in her early fifties, and still radiantly beautiful, perhaps even more so now than in her youth. (Is she extraordinarily beautiful, or are women like her common in France?) She has been onscreen since Jean-Luc Godard cast her in Hail Mary (1985). I loved her in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, although she didn't stand out any more or less than Julie Delpy in White or Irene Jacob in Red. She won an Oscar for the dull The English Patient, which, at the time, I thought was generous. But then over the course of the past decade or so, working with directors like Olivier Assayas, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, and David Cronenberg, she has turned into one of the best actors working today.

Her great beauty aside, she is capable of digging deep, finding true moments of frustration and despair, of exaltation and joy. It's difficult to describe, but during several moments in this film, the camera holds on her as she speaks and runs through a gamut of emotions, and it's just pure. It's absolutely exciting to watch. Denis usually works with a selection of regular actors, or else actors that are just a little off the beaten path. She rarely works with stars of Binoche's calibre (Isabelle Huppert in White Material being a notable exception), but I think their pairing here, taking on nothing less than a serious discussion of love, was essential (one could describe it as "beauty and brains," but it goes much further than that). And so Let the Sunshine In may look easy, but it's actually one of the most thoughtful and deeply emotional movies around.

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