Susannah Gruder on Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In
For a long time, Juliette Binoche played the kind of woman you make love to in an enormous room with nothing in it but a mattress. You didn’t need anything else; her very being filled up the space to the brim until it teemed with her energy, leaving you no other choice but to ravish her. In much of her early work she was a woman dispossessed—of her furniture, yes, but also of her morals, abject before you. To love her was to abandon everything, to live and breathe her, and to try in vain to get out alive. In films like André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (1985) and Louis Malle’s Damage (1992), men would tremble in her presence, relinquish their rules, their families, and their own sanity, simply for the possibility of one passion-filled afternoon. She was delicate but not coy—she knew what she wanted and would extract it from a suitor with little more than a glance from her piercing dark eyes. Her emptiness implored you to imbue her with meaning, invited you to project your fantasies onto her, as if you were all she was missing.
For an actor, this quality of “emptiness” can be seen as a blessing. In the ’80s and early ’90s, it meant roles that were physically open, but emotionally withholding—women whose past traumas left them achingly, and conveniently lusty. Starting off as Nina in André Téchiné’s Rendez-Vous (1985), she embodies that seductive abyss, a naive, breathless actress without a place to live, who unintentionally drives two men apart over their shared obsession with her. Witnessing the death of her lover leads her, in one scene, to strip, get on the floor, and repeatedly scream “fuck me” at another man. In Louis Malle’s Damage (1992), she plays Anna, a woman with an incestuous past who pursues a sordid affair with her fiancée’s buttoned-up, bumbling father (Jeremy Irons). Obsession, madness, and anatomically implausible sex scenes ensue. And as Julie in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue (1993), she rejects her former home and personal history after losing her husband and daughter in a car crash, becoming an ice queen who thrives off hot, impersonal sex.
With time, however, her alluring vacuousness transformed into an earnest warmth. After winning an Oscar for playing Hana, the quintessential “listener” in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996), she evolved toward roles capitalizing on her million-dollar smile rather than her thousand-yard stare. A steady stream of parts that highlighted her characters’ compassion came her way, from her roles as defiant do-gooders in The Widow of Saint-Pierre and Chocolat in 2000, to parts as flighty, warm-hearted single mothers in Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) and Certified Copy (2011). Binoche seemed to let her guard down more with each film, gaining a reputation as an actor who isn’t afraid to be unyieldingly open.
The word “open” is particularly important in Let the Sunshine In, the 2017 anti-rom-com from Claire Denis, written by Denis and the novelist Christine Angot with Binoche in mind. At the film’s conclusion, Binoche’s character Isabelle, a Parisian artist haphazardly navigating the 50+ dating scene, consults a psychic, played by Gérard Depardieu. He instructs her to take care of herself, but to remain...“open.” It’s advice that seems to confirm what she’s been doing all along. The film follows Isabelle as she embarks on love affairs big and small with a wide range of men over an unspecified period of time. Disappointed at every turn, she nevertheless picks herself up, puts her thigh-high boots back on, and starts again. She exudes sexuality throughout the film—from her footwear to her smoky eye and tousled hair. Most strikingly, her chest is fully visible in nearly every scene. Isabelle wears her heart on her cleavage, her deep v-necks plunging further with every wardrobe change. This is a woman who wants you to see her body but also understand her heart—even if it means walking around with an unbuttoned parka in the middle of winter, or coming over unannounced to say, “I’m in love with you.” She’s as much the vixen as she was in her early roles, but here she lets down her emotional guard. In this, their first collaboration, Denis and Binoche explore the reality of what it means for an older woman, and an older actress, to be so consistently, unapologetically open.
None of the storylines of her earlier films would be possible if the characters had an ounce of the emotional openness Isabelle embodies in Let the Sunshine In. That frigidity is what made them so beguiling—as a mystery, Juliette makes men stutter and abandon all logic. But as an open book, she lets men in, perhaps to her detriment. Denis, anti-cliché crusader that she is, takes the romantic comedy genre and has her way with it, showing what would likely happen to a beautiful 50-year-old woman who is looking for love, and who isn’t afraid to make her feelings known. In reality, this woman would not only get her heart broken, she would rarely be granted the dignity of a clean break from the kinds of emotionally stunted men she tends to be drawn to. Her affairs seem to trail off, whether via the kinds of circuitous non-conversations that take place between her and an unnamed alcoholic actor she sleeps with (Nicolas Duvauchelle), or the intermittent run-ins and incessant phone-calls from Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), the emotionally abusive married banker she’s seeing. Her openness and her willingness to listen to their long-winded soliloquies of self-aggrandizement or self-pity signal to them that she will always be there. It’s an incredibly cynical—and apt—look at dating.
The film begins in medias res, suggesting that Isabelle has been enduring these less-than-optimal patterns for some time. Even from the first scene—which drops us into the throes of laborious lovemaking between Binoche and Beauvois—there’s a sense of exhaustion on her part, as she rolls her eyes, wondering aloud when it’ll be over. This feeling is so palpable in part because as viewers, we’re tired of it, too. The film feels a bit like reading a diary that’s only been updated at times of romantic distress or ecstasy by someone who doesn’t bother to include the date. Perhaps a week has gone by between each scene, perhaps several months or a year.
Added up, these episodes, and Isabelle’s behavior, risk seeming overly dramatic. It appears as if all she does is go from one dead-end relationship to the next: a supercut of unfortunate events. Denis has never been one for exposition, leaving viewers to interpret the significance of everything from an outdoor shower in her enigmatic debut feature Chocolat (1988), to a rice cooker in 35 Shots of Rum (2008). But here, she barely leaves a breadcrumb between moments—there are no meet-cutes, those unrealistic rom-com staples, there to entertain us and explain why we’re suddenly witnessing Isabelle on a date with someone new. Instead we’re disorientingly placed into whatever moment means the most to Isabelle emotionally—the bliss of a romantic possibility, the sting of getting your heart broken, or the sympathy of a kind stranger. The only time we see Isabelle meet a potential lover, it’s less cute than surreal—a wordless dance with a stranger (Paul Blain) to Etta James’s “At Last” ironically suggests she’s found the one, only to have the relationship predictably unravel two scenes later. It’s all very tiring. Hence her consistent refrain: “Je suis fatiguée, moi.” “I’m tired.” Tired of dating, of disappointment, and of asking to be loved. Denis films Binoche as she sleeps, at peace for an instant before she’s woken by the dinging of her phone, or by her own outburst of tears.
While Isabelle may be tired, Binoche seems to remain largely unscathed by the effort it’s taken to bare her body and her heart with audiences over the years. You can say that the 55-year-old actor and Lancôme rep hasn’t aged a day, as does a slimy media mogul in the French series Call My Agent! where Binoche plays herself for an episode. “There are actresses you see a lot, then they work less, and when they return to the screen, the charm is gone,” he says. “But not Juliette. She's still blooming, opening out, like a wonderful flower.” And while on the surface the fine lines and wrinkles are minimal, it can’t be easy to move from relationship to relationship, or from role to role. That is, without somehow developing a firm sense of identity, or, to quote Depardieu’s psychic, and the French version of the title, to be able to find “un beau soleil intérieur” (literally: "a beautiful interior sunshine," and not “let the sunshine in”). Speaking on the subject during a Q&A following a screening of the film, Binoche suggests that she is trying do just that: “When you identify with emotions, when you identify with a situation, that’s where it gets dangerous. But there is an inner side of you that stays forever the same, that’s the spark, that’s the love of life, that’s the love of creating, that’s the love of searching, that’s the love of knowing, of not knowing.”
Isabelle is a painter, and the film at one point depicts her in the act—one of the only moments, aside from sleeping, that she’s alone. As someone—we never find out who—rings her buzzer and bangs away at her door, she ignores it, stapling a massive canvas to the ground and moving about it like a dancer wielding a paintbrush. The scene is shot from above, so all that’s visible is the back of her body as she hovers over her project. Throughout the film, Binoche decisively turns away from the camera at moments, often while in bed, after having been offended by one of her lovers (“With your previous friend, did you cum fast?” the banker asks her before she slaps him and turns away on her side). Her nude back dominates the frame, stretching out endlessly like a defenseless odalisque. These shots feel like the truest and most generous collaboration between Binoche, Denis, and director of photography Agnès Godard. While Denis and Godard can repeatedly capture Juliette’s beauty in striking close-up, they also give her the freedom to take a break from its gaze.
Binoche herself is an accomplished painter; her works have also appeared in The Lovers on the Bridge and Words and Pictures. It’s something she does for herself, an activity in which she doesn’t have to be efficient or perform for anyone, as she said during the same Q&A. “I like to paint in a hidden place,” she says. “I think we all need to have that place where we do things without anybody noticing it.” This is perhaps one of the ways she maintains her inner light, the one that shows up in all her roles, no matter how dark they get. When you’ve spent your life being open—to telling others’ stories, to the love of audiences around the world, and to ideas people have about you—it’s important to have a respite.
Just as Binoche works to protect a little of her inner light for herself, Denis fights to preserve a bit of nuance in her narratives, freeing her film from forming any opinions about its protagonist. It’s a wonder the two hadn’t teamed up before, but even in the small world of cinema it can take a long time for two people to find each other. The film is, at last, the result of a brilliant partnership—between a director who keeps things open-ended, and an actor who’s perpetually, and admirably, trying to find a way to stay open.