Opening the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes, Let the Sunshine In is a strange, disjointed picture. It trundles along without much cohesion, but there are some perceptive moments among the anxious interactions and wordless exchanges. Few love lives are more interesting for contemporary cinema than those of the depressed, wealthy, metropolitan middle class. Director Claire Denis firmly focuses on this never-neglected cadre of the self-absorbed. We get to see pity, aggrandisement and righteousness across several fraught romantic encounters. We rarely see much else.
Juliette Binoche is excellent as an exposed, overwrought artist working her way through a litany of briefly flickering and quickly souring relationships. In the explicit opening we see Isabelle (Binoche) reaching the rapid denouement of a conventionally contorted sexual encounter. As we are affronted by their nakedness from the beginning, the characters look somehow more grotesque with their clothes on. Isabelle produces acclaimed artwork and we once see her staple a canvas to the floor. She has a young daughter who briefly flickers onto screen through a car window. The film does not linger on these elements, both aspects hovering indiscreetly as faltering inconveniences in Isabelle’s love life. Denis instead centres on the protagonist’s search for a relationship with depth, or at least with understanding. By marginalising Isabelle’s other lives the film seeks to methodically unpick her hapless engagements with men. And what a roster this is: bastard, hypocrite, philanderer, coward and pleb. A comprehensive topography of male awfulness! Almost no one is likeable – a friend seems reasonable and cheery and she is summarily dismissed within two minutes of screen time. Isabelle soldiers on, seeking either dignity or satisfaction, never both, and the film engages when depicting her quest for fulfilment. Such quests are rarely sentimental. Near the end, grand French thespians Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Gérard Depardieu make seemingly improvised cameos as quarrelling lovers, and the film’s appendix consists of a hilariously staccato and slowly evolving seduction scene with Depardieu’s therapist-cum-psychic.
Loosely based on Barthes’s fragmented A Lover’s Discourse, the film is co-written by Denis and novelist Christine Angot. Some of the dialogue is sharp but it’s often difficult to care about these characters. Perhaps this is Denis’s satirical point, and the circuitous conversations, beset by extended awkwardness and grating repetition, invite us to laugh rather than empathise. Binoche lies at the fulcrum of the film and she gives us the full range: frustration to melancholy, tearfulness to fury. Depression is difficult to depict, but there is a truth to Isabelle’s stubbornness and vulnerability. Eventually, and not unexpectedly, we glimpse a prosaic form of happiness.