A Director’s Discourse
By Nick Pinkerton
Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)
Dir. Claire Denis, France, IFC Films
With Claire Denis, there’s always a theme song. Often it’s a pop standard that she’s adopted for her own use, but one never has the sense that she’s hijacking the intrinsic emotionality of the music to compensate for an absence in the filmmaking—rather, it’s as though the rest of the film has been built out from the kernel of the song. In Denis’s latest, the theme is “At Last,” written in 1941 to feature in the John Payne vehicle Sun Valley Serenade, from which it was eventually cut. The tune had been around forever before it was recorded by vocalist Etta James, laying down her Chess Records debut. James laid claim to the song from then on, for she was a performer of extraordinary pathos and power—there is a story surrounding her discovery of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which has it that label owner Leonard Chess left the room in tears when he first heard James perform it. Maybe, as lore has it, this had something to do with the relationship between Chess and James, or maybe it was just that particular feeling that comes from being in the presence of greatness, that combination of pleasure and sorrow and gratitude.
I felt that commingled pleasure and sorrow and gratitude throughout Denis’s Un beau soleil intérieur, which translates approximately as “A Beautiful Sun Within,” though in the U.S. it has been slapped with the unfortunate title Let the Sunshine In, which sounds a bit like a Sheryl Crow album. (Come to think of it, Sun Valley Serenade might be better.) James is one of the guiding spirits of Denis’s film. Her image discreetly decorates the wall of the film’s focal character, Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a recently divorced, middle-aged abstract painter now playing the field. We first hear “At Last” in an instrumental cocktail bar jazz rendition, as Isabelle is extracting herself from a painful conversation with a married man with whom she’s having an affair, a banker, Vincent (played by Of Gods and Men director Xavier Beauvois, who has the porcine, corrupt look particular to European men of means which has remained remarkably consistent since the days of Holbein). Only later do we get the full James treatment, at a small nightclub somewhere in the provinces, where Isabelle and a gaggle of Parisians have removed for a regional arts fair. Isabelle is busy fending off the thinly veiled advances of a gallerist (Bruno Podalydes), when suddenly a thin stranger (Paul Blain) with an incongruously, hilariously grave expression and a Jacques Brel horse mouth comes into her purview, and she stands to meet him on the dance floor as though they had a pre-appointed meeting, and they sway together in a moment of the ridiculous sublime, as James sings “…I found a thrill to press my cheek to.”
The narrative engine of Let the Sunshine In is, in brief, Isabelle’s pursuit of that “At Last” feeling—trying to find it, then trying to hold onto it once found. The world being what it is and men being what we are rarely reward such quixotic endeavors, but Denis loves Isabelle for her nearly mystic ardor all the same, and that love shows in the way that she and regular DP Agnès Godard have shot their star. Favoring leatherette minis accompanied by four-inch heels or the thigh-high boots she’s seen struggling her way out of—viewers of Bastards (2013) will recall that Denis is singularly attentive to shoes—Isabelle is perhaps Binoche’s most purely carnal role since that of the bed-hopping Nina in André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (1985), though the nature of the need that she exudes here, playing a woman some 30 years older, is very different, if no less urgent. Isabelle’s love life is at the center of the film, but there is always a sense that it’s conducted in the frantic margins of her actual life, in the parentheses when her daughter—viewed only once, briefly—is staying with dad, the clock always ticking.
Binoche, her performance as Isabelle so astonishing as to erase the memory of her occasional doe-eyed coasting, would have been 52 during filming, and she looks positively dewy, younger here than she did in Michael Haneke’s Caché in 2005. Even when working on darker material than what’s at hand in Let the Sunshine In, Denis has never suffered from Haneke’s punitive hang-ups on visual pleasure. Even when making a film about men and women who lapse into cannibalism whenever they succumb to sexual hunger, Trouble Every Day (2001)—referred to, incidentally, in a painting in Vincent’s living room that echoes that film’s image of bloody smears on antique wallpaper—Denis celebrates the sensorial enticements. That movie works precisely because it makes flesh look so damn tempting, good enough to eat.
Denis films the men around Isabelle with the same tenderness that she affords her heroine—though this doesn’t blind her to their myriad foibles and failings, any more than she is tempted to make a martyr of the self-pitying, often oblivious Isabelle. She puts herself at the mercy of a theater actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who’s an obvious catastrophe with a nice jawline, a self-confessed boozer who drains three beers in rapid succession in a very brief café meeting, and even after Isabelle goes to an extraordinary effort to maneuver him into bed, she finds him no less evasive the morning after. Near the film’s close she has embarked on a new fling with a curator friend (Denis regular Alex Descas) seen previously as a part of Isabelle’s social circle, canoodling with him on the street on a cold night before they go home separately—he seems nice, maybe too much so. As we last see her she’s taking her misgivings to a medium played by Gérard Depardieu, whose prognostications seems suspiciously like self-promotion, an application to be next in line. To this list of suitors we can add the would-be paramours, like Podalydes’s Fabrice, or the side-whiskered eccentric whom she keeps running into at the fishmonger, played by the comedian Philippe Katerine. Finally, there is Isabelle’s ex-husband (Laurent Grevill), who still keeps his key and is an occasional visitor to her bedroom, only disinvited after his boudoir maneuver of his wetting a finger before reaching under the sheets offends something deep within Isabelle. (Because Let the Sunshine In is such a sensually pleasurable movie it is easy to overlook the fact that the actual on-screen lovemaking is always going awry—the film opens with a clumsy coupling between Isabelle and a rutting Vincent.)
Isabelle is at the mercy of chimerical fits like that cause her to chase her ex- out the door, barbs of intuition which once planted in her mind drag her hither and tither, these hard-to-define in-between feelings that are no less potent for lacking a proper name. In the primary importance given to these nuances the movie may be said to most clearly resemble its stated inspiration, the semiotician and belle-lettrist Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, the stepping-off point for Denis’s script with co-screenwriter Christine Angot, author of the 1999 novel Incest. (This is not the first time that Denis has created a fiction narrative by working from a philosopher’s work—her 2006 L’Intrus was inspired by an essay by Jean-Luc Nancy.) Barthes’s book is arranged as a sort of dictionary modeled after Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues, alphabetically listing and defining the different liminal, fragmentary, agitated states of mind experienced by a lover, these quicksilver feelings defined as “figures” which are likened to “the body’s gesture caught in action and not contemplated in repose.” This should sound familiar, for Denis’s cinema is attentive to the body and the gesture to a degree unmatched outside of that of Jacques Rivette, whom she profiled in a 1990 television documentary co-directed with Serge Daney. (The abiding theme of Rivette’s filmography is probably best described by a Morrissey lyric: “Some girls are bigger than others.”)
A Lover’s Discourse was published in 1977, three years before Barthes’s death and eleven years before Denis made her first feature, and he was certainly a known quantity among the Parisian cinephile generation of the 1970s, when Denis was coming of age—for example, before starring in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973), Françoise Lebrun was a contributor to his journal Communications, and several critics, including Alain Philippon, have speculated as to Barthes’s influence on the lovers’ dialogues in Eustache’s movie. To trace possible direct parallels between the book and Let the Sunshine In calls for deeper excavation than would be possible after a single screening, but I suspect it is nothing so literal, and that Barthes’s influence permeates not only this film but Denis’ body of work as a whole, dedicated as both artists are to the eschewal of the obvious and the outlining of states on the fringe of expression, of ineffable auras. Barthes was a gay man, though he maintained that his Discourse was neither explicitly homo- nor heterosexual. Instead he adopted what he called a “feminine” stance for his “amorous subject,” the one who loves, whose different attitudes his book offers an anatomy of. “It follows,” Barthes writes, “that in any man who utters the other’s absence something feminine is declared: this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized. A man is not feminized because he is inverted but because he is in love. (Myth and utopia: the origins have belonged, the future will belong to the subjects in whom there is something feminine.)”
This association of the feminine with weakness or vulnerability may be objectionable in a cultural climate where criticasters monotonously beat the drum for the Strong Female Character, but Denis is an artist, not a sloganeer, and as such she has always been gifted with the only kind of strength that matters—the guts to speak hard home truths and not give a fuck about how they might be received. It should be noted that the primary architects of Let the Sunshine In—Denis, Binoche, Godard, and Angot—are all women, and that the movie contains certain scenes that are difficult to imagine were this not the case, and one in particular that I still can’t believe exists at all. An exchange between Isabelle and a girlfriend, played by Sandrine Dumas, it’s a showcase for Binoche, who in the course of a single unbroken take can be seen turning a 180 between girlish giddiness and wet-eyed despair, bemoaning “My love life is all over.” The scene is both striking in execution and startling in the subject matter: Isabelle compares her lovers, and in the course of doing so describes triggering her orgasms with Vincent by contemplating her disgust for him. Perhaps it’s the scene’s setting, the basement bathroom of a café, or the utterly uninhibited confessional tone, but it appeared to me for a moment as a feminine rejoinder to Eustache’s 1977 classic of Peeping Tom philosophy Une sale histoire. (Some critics have seen fit instead to draw a comparison between Denis’s film and those of Nancy Meyers, which—though not a knock in my book—is supercilious and pretty wide of the mark.)
That Denis can produce a work that, without a trace of preciousness, is equal parts indebted to Barthes and Chicago blues, connected as arm is to shoulder to the film-historical legacy of post-New Wave French filmmaking, is only further justification for claim that the 71-year-old is the greatest working director over the last two decades. This estimation is not, apparently, universal. It might be taken as a slight, for instance, that Let the Sunshine In premiered in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section at Cannes this year, and not in Competition. No surprise, perhaps, as Denis’s film is the sort of thing usually discussed as a “minor,” the appellation usually applied to movies about love and intimacy, topics of almost universal relevance, as opposed to “major” works that indulge in the overblown oversimplification of barely understood historical periods, interminable “sculpting with time,” or the espousal of revolutionary creeds to well-heeled film festival audiences who know in their secret hearts that they will never in their lives participate in a violent uprising of any kind. It is also a comedy, and a comedy coming from Denis is a concept that has surprised several commentators who’ve apparently forgotten that the director included the finest fart gag of the 21st century in 35 Shots of Rum (2008).
If making a claim for the “majorness” of Let the Sunshine In, we might point to its philosophical pedigree, or its class-consciousness—Fabrice drips poison into Isabelle’s ear to undermine her belief in a possible future with Blain’s working-class character, Sylvain, and, in perhaps the least sympathetic moment of a character given many of them, Isabelle carries this load of venom home to pass along to her lover rather than suffering through its effects herself. Sylvain’s wounded response is the first time we hear the character, who has become a major figure in our protagonist’s life, speak for himself, and the result is jarring, abrupt, painful. Though a child of the colonial civil servant caste, Denis is by sentiment and inclination one of the last viable working-class filmmakers in the white-collar west, and so it is only appropriate that her film should be capped off with an appearance by Depardieu, the hulking star of Maurice Pialat’s Loulou (1980), that bruising film of interclass love.
This elision of Isabelle’s relationship with Sylvain until the moment of crisis is just one of the sly narrative strategies that Denis employs, her ellipsis some of the most intuitive and absolutely correct since Pialat’s passing. The film rarely breaks away from Isabelle, but when it does the result always feels significant: when we see Duvauchelle alone on the Metro platform, for example, we may wonder if we are really seeing him or rather the taunting vision that Isabelle has of him in her longing. The last digression comes very near the film’s end, and seems to introduce a parallel storyline of which we hadn’t been aware until this very moment, an intrusion from another movie. We are witness to what appears to be the messy end of a love affair, a parting of ways in a parked car between Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Depardieu, somehow only appearing before Denis’s camera for the first time. After calling things quits, he exits onto the street and sighs a line that might be a coda for Let the Sunshine In: “How could I have believed in it?” By playing the film’s final scene under the closing credits crawl, however, Denis undermines the very idea of an ending. Hope springs eternal. We will believe again, even if we should know better. Trouble every day, indeed.
The true testimony to the preeminence of Let the Sunshine In is not in its selection of themes, but in its remarkable attention to the fine grain of human behavior. Put plainly, I know of few filmmakers who bring to bear an emotional and cinematographic intelligence and attention from scene to scene that is comparable to that of Denis. (I have interviewed the filmmaker only once, and her keen insistence of cross-examining my clumsily worded questions until they achieved absolute precision of language still keeps me up nights.) The drawn-out pas de deux between Isabelle and her actor friend is a perfect illustration of Denis’s craft, a low-key set piece that invests with aching feeling the proximity of two hands and the possibilities that this proximity suggests, the inherent erotic tension of an idling car, and the comical pretext of a nightcap champagne bottle left unopened on a living room coffee table.
This is a cinema as rich as life itself, a distillation and decoding of the language of gesture of which our existences are comprised, as described by Barthes: “A squeeze of the hand—enormous documentation—a tiny gesture within the palm, a knee which doesn’t move away, an arm extended, as if quite naturally, along the back of a sofa and against which the other’s head gradually comes to rest—this is the paradisiac realm of subtle and clandestine signs: a kind of festival not of the senses but of meaning.” Or, to borrow the phrase James makes her own: “A thrill to press my cheek to.” A little movie, a minor work, only everything.