“Let the Sunshine In,” a wistful grown-up romantic comedy by Claire Denis, made its premiere almost precisely one year ago at Cannes – not in the prestigious main competition, where it deserved to be, but in one of the festival’s well regarded but still marginal sidebars.
That slight only underscores the dismissive biases that plague the programming at Cannes, which favors male auteurs and angsty naturalism. It’s easy to see why the festival’s curatorial team overlooked a story of a middle-age woman looking for love and sexual fulfillment as being not serious enough for Cannes’ most sought-after imprimatur. But that doesn’t make it right.
Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle, a divorced painter living in Paris who, as the movie opens, is in the throes of not-quite-wonderful-looking sex with her lover Vincent (Xavier Beauvois). For reasons that become evident in that and subsequent scenes, Vincent is not ideal for Isabelle, even though he admires her bohemian ways and commitment to art.
Holding the couple in a steady, squared-off frame, Denis observes Vincent’s condescension, pedantry and desire, along with Isabelle’s ambivalence, self-loathing – for allowing him to patronize her – and need. All this, in the space of one cocktail at a quiet corner of a bar.
Denis obeys that same sense of decorum throughout “Let the Sunshine In,” which she adapted with Christine Angot from a 1977 book by Roland Barthes. Meeting a series of men and trying them on for size, Isabelle emerges as a fascinating bundle of contradictions: fiercely independent, but painfully susceptible to male approval; robustly and gloriously middle-aged (Binoche is 54), but still hanging on to the clothes and behavior of her youth; prone to temperamental outbursts, but smart and supremely self-aware.
It’s Binoche, here delivering one of her finest and most subtly calibrated performances, who imbues Isabelle with the heart and earthy eroticism that makes her far more appealing, even heroic, than the pathetic figure she might have been. This is a funny, candid, sexy and kind of sad chronicle of a woman who dares to demand the kind of companionship and spark-fueled physical intimacy that, by too many lights, is reserved only for far younger women. “Let the Sunshine In” offers a startlingly subversive portrait of a mother who’s far more interested in her own identity and pleasure than in responding to the needs of her 10-year-old daughter.
In that regard, “Let the Sunshine In” doesn’t offer a consistently pretty picture. Where some viewers might view Isabelle as a hopelessly stunted victim of self-deception, others will see an avatar of empowerment and autonomy. In her own carefully controlled but fragmentary and discursive style, Denis provides the space for both kinds of judgment, never showing her own hand. At least, that is, until the film’s audacious final scene, another bold example of flouting expectations, when the title of the film becomes rapturously, even ecstatically clear.
It’s a strange, surreal moment, full of hope and optimism. And, true to the film’s themes, Binoche illuminates it as though lit from within.