Alex Descas, Charisse Gendron, cinema, Claire Denis, European cinema, French cinema, Gerard Depardieu, Juliette Binoche, Laurent Grévill, Nicolas Duvauchelle), Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Xavier Beauvois
Among French actresses, Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche represent two sides of the dramatic coin and director Claire Denis has used them both brilliantly. In Denis’ newest film, Let the Sunshine In, Binoche plays Isabelle, the blooming, eternally optimistic woman whose pupils balloon into hearts at the sight of a man with love potential. Neither politics, looks, class, nor marital status seems to matter to Isabelle in her desperation to slip into a sensuous, joyous affair, a romance worth waking up for in the morning.
Not that Isabelle’s life lacks richness: a successful painter, divorced with an adolescent daughter—seen once, through a car window—she travels with a set of sophisticated, sympathetic friends. She is also beautiful and charming enough to engage a series of five suitors without, seemingly, losing a weekend. Her eager pursuit of happiness, however, is tripped by her intelligence and self-respect, which emerge, somewhat reluctantly, whenever bliss deflates to disappointment.
First in the series of suitors comes the insufferable Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), a married banker who feeds his own ego by humiliating bartenders and insisting that Isabelle reach orgasm before him, turning sex into a reverse contest. Then comes an indecisive actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), caught in a self-involved spiral of second guesses, whose diffidence or indifference drives Isabelle to tears. Hitting bottom, she trysts with her former husband (Laurent Grévill), but they quarrel mid tryst.
One night at a club she shares a swoon-worthy dance with Sylvain (Paul Blain), a working-class man with a gorgeous, slightly ravaged face. They become lovers, but Isabelle’s art world friends warn against placing her hopes in someone with whom she has so little in common. Against Sylvain’s wishes, she breaks it off, only to make a play for the curator Marc (Alex Descas), who gently suggests that they see what happens when he returns from his travels.
Bemused at last, Isabelle consults a medium (Gérard Depardieu)—who enters his session with Isabelle wondering how he could have kidded himself that his pretty girlfriend (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) would stick around. The blind leading the blind. He gives Isabelle hope, however, that something momentous will happen if she will only stay “open.” Isabelle is plenty open, but perhaps the point is that he gives her hope—and is rewarded with full-on Binoche radiance.
Claire Denis has shown herself to be a great lover of men, sometimes at the expense of women, in film after film—a career that parallels the trajectory of her protagonist Isabelle. Thus it is unsurprising that this female character spends scant emotional energy on relationships with other females, including her daughter—none of Denis’ heroines do. What is surprising is that Denis allows Isabelle to turn her back on the soulful, affectionate, and virile Sylvain—another dig, maybe unconscious, at the privileged women who toy with working-class men, often black, in such films as Chocolat, No Fear, No Die, and Friday Night. Then there is Trouble Every Day, in which an African scientist cannot make love with his white wife without arousing her desire to eat him alive–literally. Let the Sunshine In‘s Isabelle does not devour men, but like Denis’ vampire wife, she is addicted to their sweet flesh.