Even if she were to direct an airline safety video, Claire Denis would fill each frame with grace and emotional heft. In her latest film, Un beau soleil intérieur (translated to Let the Sunshine In for English-speaking audiences) continuously finds alluring ways to examine the charged mechanics of its subjects, whether the camera is gracefully swinging back and forth between characters lost in conversation or delicately hovering in the heavens as it looks down on its protagonist painting on the floor. Once again, Denis is inventing new angles from which to survey the tender depths of desire.
Juliette Binoche takes center stage as Isabelle, a recently divorced painter who is active in the Paris dating scene. Rarely explored on the big screen, we are shown an older woman who’s hungry for love, and her story isn’t desexualized. What’s more, Denis picks apart the dichotomy that Isabelle’s age brings to her romantic encounters. At this point in her life, she’s older and wiser, but at the same time, she has to deal with the inherently irrational pursuit of putting all of her faith into someone who will almost assuredly disappoint her. That conflict simultaneously finds her flirting with permitting herself to be vulnerable while also keeping her heart guarded.
It’s all too tempting to call Let the Sunshine In a comedy; the film certainly is deeply funny in its dry, sharp wit. But that doesn’t even begin to capture the dark, gut-wrenching humanity at its core. The film’s breezy title is misleading. It is a deeply anguished story, and one whose thematic journey is steeped in persistent disappointment. The bittersweet script operates within a complex tonal intersection that is undoubtedly French.
Denis is first and foremost a visual director, often allowing images to speak for themselves in evocative, mood-driven landscapes apart from the restraints of dialogue. However, this script values words (most likely because it is co-written with novelist Christine Angot), particularly in regards to how characters choose them carefully in order to hide what they are actually feeling. The dialogue plucks fragments of calculated emotion with these heartfelt phrases, also affording the actors room for the brilliant use of awkward pauses.
Juliette Binoche sells the narrative with her incredibly intimate performance. It feels effortless in its ability to form a balletic snapshot of naturalistic sentiment. She absolutely carries the entire film on her face; she tends to have fewer lines of dialogue than the men she deals with, so much of the film revolves around her nonverbal reactions to their senseless meandering.
As Denis rounds out her portrait of an aging artist who’s wading through a sea of boorish, self-absorbed men, she makes sure to end on an optimistic note. At least, it feels that way by comparison. Let the Sunshine In doesn’t subscribe to the trademark rom-com worldview that each of us have an angelic counterpart who’s just waiting to bump into us outside of a quirky coffee shop. Instead, it operates on a different level, one that values the transformation over any kind of tangible reward.