Claire Denis teams with Juliette Binoche for an uncharacteristically sunny search for romance.
The name Claire Denis and the word ‘comedy’ have rarely been associated. A master of modern French cinema, Denis has made her name telling stories of post-colonialism, repression, and in the case of Trouble Every Day, cannibalism. There is a thematic through line that runs through her films, and that is desire. Whether subtle or exterior, Claire Denis has continued to tell stories that depict characters in various stages of yearning. Therefore, her latest film, Let the Sunshine In, is not that much of an outlier. The film is a romantic-comedy; a sort of Woody Allen meets Nancy Myers by way of Claire Denis. This seems entirely unusual for the director, making Let the Sunshine In one of the festival’s most delightful surprises.
In their first collaboration, Denis casts French screen legend Juliette Binoche as Parisian lover Isabelle. Isabelle is a lover, rather than a woman searching for love. The film introduces Isabelle for the first time while she is in the midst of a sex act. She urges her partner to “hurry up,” yet does not seem to want him to leave. For Isabelle, love and sex are important; they are intrinsically tied though frequently corrupted by one another. Isabelle aches for the feeling that comes from connection romantically with another person. Sex is just a part of the package.
Throughout the film, Isabelle finds herself involved with multiple men. Each offers her different aspects of the ideal connection she is so desperately searching for. Her ex-husband, an actor, an art curator, and a smoldering man across the bar are just some of the partners Isabelle crosses paths with. With these men, Isabelle finds herself in a series of circular interactions; spending unbelievable amounts of time with her hand on the door handle of a car or in dawdling in an entranceway. She is trying, sometimes successfully, to preserve a moment before saying goodbye. These moments are often heartbreaking. Isabelle has her pick of suitors, yet she just cannot seem to capture what she thinks is love. Desperation is visible, yet Isabelle is unrelenting.
Binoche portrays the woman as a free spirit of sorts, able to embrace the moment and find humor in her struggles. For example, she seems drained sitting across from a colleague at a bar as he attempts to convince her that they are the perfect suited. As a song in diegesis ends, Etta James’ “At Last” begins. At this same moment, Isabelle catches the eye of a tall, dark stranger across the room. What follows is one of the many moments that show real beauty in Denis’ piece, as Isabelle dances slowly across the room before taking the mystery man in her arms.
Let the Sunshine In presents a new Claire Denis. While the film thematically aligns with the director’s oeuvre, I cannot help but wonder where her joyous sensibilities have come from. It is not unusual for the journeys of Denis’ respective protagonists to end in death, defeat, or heartbreak. This is not the case, nor the message of her latest film. The film’s title and final scene suggest a sort of happy-go-lucky attitude. Perhaps for the first time, Claire Denis seems to be saying that love is out there, and it’s our job to let it in. The result of Denis’ newfound embrace of the optimistic is one of the most emotionally rich films at Cannes. Let the Sunshine In showcases a beautiful performance and evolving mastery from one of French cinema’s greatest filmmakers.