Romantic entanglements only feel dire to the person stuck within them. To outsiders, those problems can seem inconsequential or downright indulgent. Most movies do not treat them seriously, either: a romantic hero is usually in a frothy comedy, or a maudlin melodrama. Let the Sunshine In, the new French drama from acclaimed director Claire Denis, treats romantic entanglements with uncommon respect. Her middle aged heroine is in the throes of a existential crisis, worrying that the end of her romantic and sexual life means the start of death. Denis handles the material with a focused, empathetic touch, keeping things from her perspective so we share her moments of frustration and relief.
Juliette Binoche stars as Isabelle, a prominent artist living in Paris. She is divorced and estranged from her daughter, to the point we only see her in passing. Isabelle’s concerns are her lovers, not her career or family, and Denis never admonishes her for it. Instead, the film follows her from one affair to another, with the only judgment reserved for her partners.
The first one we meet is Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), a vulgar banker who debases Isabelle because he needs a reprieve from a wife he respects too much. In an exacting scene of bad manners, we watch Vincent order a Scotch and water, with him taking too much pleasure in the humiliation of his server. The subtext is Denis forcing the audience to ask why Isabelle puts up with him. The answer, of course, is that even quasi-available men at her age come with baggage.
Moments of Let the Sunshine In unfold like a romantic comedy. Isabelle is not an especially witty person, but once she stops internalizing her frustration, her way of lashing out is funny through sheer shock. In one memorable scene, she joins an artist’s retreat with a wealthy benefactor, and she loses patience with his self-satisfaction. The bigger setpieces are when Isabelle goes on dates, and the cultural differences are just one source of curiosity: urbane and European, Isabelle and her lovers speak more openly about their feelings, even if that means it takes longer for them to get into bed.
The film also features several sex scenes that veer between eroticism and humiliation. Binoche appears nude several times, but Denis films her body so it reflects how sexy Isabelle feels at any given moment. Vincent thrusting away pales in comparison to a temperamental stage actor who at least knows how to follow her signals and build some suspense.
This film is a departure for Denis, who normally prefers more serious, unconventional fare. Her best known films, such as Beau Travail and White Material, are set in Africa with French colonialism as the main subject. Not only does this film take place almost entirely within Paris, its devotion to Isabelle’s mental state is single-minded. In the hands of another filmmaker, this material would be broadly comic. Denis has no patience for easy entertainments, and instead prefers filming her subject with the same seriousness she gives herself. This is the rare film where, if Isabelle could somehow watch it, she would think Denis portrayed her accurately.
As for Binoche, she has made a career out of uncompromising, sharp women, and Isabelle is no different. Her performance here is a little like her work in Elles and Clous of Sils Maria, two films about middle-aged women who are not ready to let go of capricious impulses. But both those films show the Bincohe character inspired by younger women, while Isabelle’s impulses here are more desperate and inward. Like the best psychological studies, audiences will connect with Denis’ hero because what she wants – excitement, passion, romance – never quite go away just because our flesh starts to sag.
The French title for this film is Un beau soleil intérieur, which roughly translates to “A beautiful sunny interior.” It is a more apt, elegant title, since Isabelle could radiate joy if only she could meet someone worthy of it. The English title critiques Isabelle, as if to say she must decide she is ready for happiness. Isabelle is definitely ready, and it’s her options that represent the bigger problem. Either way, Let the Sunshine In is the rare drama that treats crippling everyday anxiety with the respect it deserves. Most of us experience such negative feelings regularly, in one way or another, but most of us are not so lucky that we get someone like Denis who will only take our side.