Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Laurent Grévill, Bruno Podalydès, Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Gérard Depardieu
Director: Claire Denis
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes
On the surface, Let the Sunshine In is a major left turn for provocateur Claire Denis, a filmmaker whose work is littered with nihilistic characters. Films like the erotic horror drama Trouble Every Day and seedy noir Bastards pair her minimalistic style with naturalistic performances and a dread-inducing mood. By contrast, Let the Sunshine In is a compact 95 minute slice-of-life about a fragile woman looking for love. Of course, since the woman in question is played by regular Denis collaborator Juliette Binoche, and because the film refuses to indulge in bland romcom conventions, there's an undercurrent of melancholy lining up with the director's previous work. The search for a partner--with all the inconsolable pain of feeling superlative emotions and then losing them--is at the heart of the film, which moves from hope to sadness in a way complimenting Denis' ongoing fascination with how love can corrode from the inside out.
Binoche stars as Isabelle, a divorced mother/business woman who seems drawn to men with low moral standards and self-delusion. The film's opening moments are telling; an awkward sex scene between her and Vincent (Xavier Beauvois) a rich married banker, which plays like two androids mechanically performing their duties. When Vincent asks her if she came faster with former lovers, she slaps him and rolls over dejectedly. And yet, Isabelle continues seeing him; captured masterfully in a series of fluid camera movements where the couple chat inside a bar, even as Vincent condescendingly berates a young male bartender. During their meeting, it's clear this guy is a pretentious asshole, but the way Binoche registers layers of regret and shame is a masterstroke of acting. In fact, Binoche is so good here in a very demanding role that Isabelle's mental health is often a reasonable point of debate. Is she simply deluded by the fantastical idea of true love, or is her quest for fulfillment more of a toxic necessity; something she must pursue no matter what the consequences? Neither Denis nor Binchoe make Isabelle's often frustrating behavior clear; leading to a film aching with a truthful kind of despair. Unlike most movie characters, Isabelle is a complicated person with ideas and urges which don't always follow a logical path.
As Isabelle falls in with a variety of lovers, including a vain actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and an uneducated foreigner she meets on a business trip (Paul Blain), Denis tightens the screws to reveal a possible terrifying truth; that some people just might be unloveable. This is not the kind of messaging we are accustomed to in our romantic dramas, and yet Binoche's performance is so rich--registering moments of vulnerability, anger, flirtation, sexual ecstasy, and gut-wrenching heartbreak--that we still empathize with this woman on her path of self-destruction. By the time Gerard Depardieu shows up as a psychic charting Isabelle's future love life, we are inclined to chuckle at the absurdity of it all, and yet even in these scenes, Denis nails the deep-seated agony of loneliness.
Part of the brilliance of Let the Sunshine In is the way it plays with our sympathies for static character arcs and irrational decision-making. One may be inclined to shake Isabelle by the neck and tell her to wake up, but herein lies the point. This is a woman so desperately addicted to the idea (or feeling) of love that she will always force the issue. It's like attempting to curb a drug addict off their habit by simply explaining to them how their fix isn't going to make them happy in the long run. Isabelle will always choose to fall in love, too afraid she will lose the feeling with the possibility of being alone, and too oblivious to the damage she's causing to herself. In this way, Denis not only inverts the romcom, but sneakily lays bare the inherent falseness at the genre's core.