Un beau soleil intérieur
starring Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Josiane Balasko, Sandrine Dumas
screenplay by Claire Denis and Christine Angot, based on the book A Lover's Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes
directed by Claire Denis
by Angelo Muredda Improbable as it might seem for a filmmaker who once wrestled with philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy's elliptical and uncanny autobiographical essay on his heart transplant, Claire Denis sets her sights on the ostensibly lower-hanging fruit of the romantic comedy in Let the Sunshine In. This play with formal conventions has some precedent, to be sure, in the near-magical coincidences of Vendredi soir and the table-setting musical centrepiece that drives the final act of 35 Shots of Rum. As with L'Intrus, the film also stands as an idiosyncratic adaptation of a French philosopher's non-narrative work--this time Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, whose musings on how lovers talk to each other aren't loaded in the characters' mouths here so much as they are allowed to steep into the ambience like a strong tea. If the genre of happy endings and restored cosmic imbalances seems on paper to be an odd fit for Denis's predilections for delicate wordless gestures, in practice, Let the Sunshine In is nevertheless as singular as Denis's ostensibly less categorizable work: a mercurial and rather lovely portrait of a lonely woman's attempt to replenish herself and secure her future without closing any doors, which is ultimately as open to possibility as its heroine.
Few actors look more luminous being tired (or dejected, or sexually frustrated) than Binoche, who Denis often captures sprawled and crying in her rumpled bed sheets at dawn or after a semi-successful, semi-pointless tryst. Denis loves framing her in close-up and watching her attentively take in the philosophical equivocations of her decidedly flatter conversation partners, hopeful that the next repetitive cycle might yield some fruitful difference. There's something in her expression that cuts through their platitudes. The directness of her performance, and the way it casts a harsh light on the artifice in front of her, even makes sense of scenes that at first feel, for Denis especially, stilted--arch and over-scripted dialogues about commitment and love that, if you strain your ear to listen closely, sound a bit like the French intellectual cousin of moments in Nancy Meyers's It's Complicated.
This interplay between the carefully parsed and the bubbled-up real thing is the film's overarching structural principle--fitting, given that its respective French and English titles refer variously to a sun shining from within and a light being let in from outside, the kind of paradox in which Denis revels. One indelible moment sees the camera fixed on Isabelle's hand gripping a car door handle as her lover of the moment, romantic and dreamy in conversation before, suddenly becomes aloof. ("I really feel," she says, slicing through the ambivalence, "that the only thing you want is for me to leave this car.") Later, the woozy beginning of a new relationship is conveyed through a dance floor shuffle to Etta James's "At Last," then callously dismantled in a subsequent scene through an art-world colleague's nasty speech about how Isabelle and her new beau are from different social spheres.
It isn't simply that Denis is ensconcing dance, and by extension sex, over speech as the only real way lovers might communicate--though dance has certainly been one of her formal preoccupations over the years, and her quiet characters tend to fare better than her talkers. Rather, she appears to be making space, in a way more delicate than radical or abrasive, for other modes of discourse that engage the body and cut through the bullshit of the overactive and mendacious mind. If that makes us coin awkward terms like "post-structuralist rom-com" to describe whatever it is that Let The Sunshine In is doing, so be it.