(Note: This review contains spoilers.)
Actress Juliette Binoche and director Claire Denis team up for the first time with Let the Sunshine In, inexplicably billed as an arthouse romantic comedy. It’s an art film, and it’s about romance, but you won’t find many, if any, laughs. The film explores the heartache of a middle-aged painter, Isabelle (Binoche), drifting through intimate relationships and encounters hoping for love and finding it nowhere. Isabelle struggles not only with the varying quality of the men she encounters but with her own identity; she’s never entirely sure of who she is or what she wants. The narrative drifts aimlessly in this way, by design, but also struggles to hang together over the ninety-minute running time. This is hardly the best film Denis has directed, but it’s still a worthwhile addition to a massively impressive oeuvre.
One of the film’s best scenes occurs early on, as Isabelle and her lover, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), meet at a bar and discuss their relationship. Vincent is arrogant and self-absorbed, and there is a palpable tension to the scene, with Isabelle visibly struggling to maintain interest as Vincent rambles on about himself. The entire scene is accomplished with a single take, and it’s an interesting gambit: by refusing even a single cut, Denis draws agonizing attention to the passage of time, generating empathy for her protagonist by forcing the audience to endure Vincent alongside her, in all of his excruciatingly egotistical detail. The scene achieves maximum absurdity when Vincent asks the bartender if the establishment carries gluten-free olives; the actor who plays the bartender is the real MVP here, and anybody who has worked in the service industry will recognize and identify with his thousand-yard stare.
Vincent and Isabelle’s discussion at the bar is the entire film in a single shot. Let the Sunshine In submerges the audience in Isabelle’s perspective and forces us to endure the frustrations of her encounters. It’s often a tough ask. The critical consensus forming around the film is that it is slight, a minor Denis film or even a misstep. I’m being more charitable but would concur that it is slight. The film’s many detours, by design, take the audience nowhere, and eventually the film becomes so fragmented it feels like it’s losing focus altogether. The concept may have worked wonderfully as a short film, but it threatens to buckle under the weight at feature length.
The film remains compelling thanks almost entirely to Binoche. At one point in the film, Isabelle meets with an actor (Nicolas Duvauchell) to discuss a project. She expects a professional meeting and is taken aback when the actor begins slamming beers and talking endlessly about his personal life and problems. The film repeatedly cuts to close-ups of Isabelle, affecting big, friendly smiles and fiercely maintaining eye contact, while also clearly screaming internally. This wouldn’t work with anybody but Binoche in the role, or at least not as well. Binoche is so effortless, and effortlessly watchable, that she can make even a minor Denis effort riveting.
A strong ending can go a long way to leaving a lasting, positive impression, even if the journey to that ending wasn’t as impressive or memorable, and that’s the case with Let the Sunshine In. The final scene is simple and familiar on the surface, just another conversation in a long line of such encounters, this time between Isabelle and a fortune teller, Denis (Gérard Depardieu), who looks at photos of the men in Isabelle’s life and tries to divine whether they are a good match. This has the feeling of a resolution, as Denis offers life advice to Isabelle that applies something of a summary to the story. He tells her, simply, to take care of herself and be open to possibilities, to find the light, or sun, inside of her and let it grow. But there’s a catch. Isabelle doesn’t have a photo of her newest interest, Mark (Alex Descas), and Denis suggests she return when she has one, while simultaneously assuring her that none of the men, including Marc, are “the one” she is destined to be with. Like the other men Isabelle meets in the film, Denis finds himself attracted to her and fishes for an opportunity to see her again. And the advice itself, even if it sounds good in theory, is specifically undermined by the previous scene, in which Denis is introduced in the middle of a breakup with his partner (a cameo by Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and gets out of her car, wandering into the street, wondering how he could be so blind, to believe that he had found true love.
The connection between Isabelle and Denis draws an important parallel; it is no coincidence that they are the only two characters in the film who have voice-over dialogue. Denis briefly becomes the main character at the end of the film, and he is as lost in love as Isabelle. The final scene, which looks like a conclusion on the surface, is anything but. Amusingly, the ending credits actually start rolling, randomly, in the middle of his conversation with Isabelle, and conclude before the scene is finished. It’s a small detail, but a clever one, drawing attention to the deliberate lack of resolution. When you are as lost and lonely and frustrated as someone like Isabelle, or Denis, and when you don’t even know what you want or what you’re looking for, how do you recognize answers or solutions? Isabelle is a soul adrift, floating aimlessly in the emotional detritus of her self-doubt. And there are many such souls, like Denis, floating and drifting and colliding with each other. It’s a powerful and relatable conclusion, because it isn’t a conclusion, and the advice is easier said than done, if not altogether worthless; at some points in our lives, all we can do is hold on and keep floating.