Monday 30 April 2018

What a girl wants: "Let the Sunshine In"

If we are looking for new labels to toss round the necks of movies like fairground hoops, then Let the Sunshine In might just be claimed as elevated romantic comedy. Again we're watching a woman searching for happiness, and her encounters with men who may not always be sympathetic to this cause, nor suited to the goal. The elevated bit is that the woman is an apparently self-sustaining artist, who lives in a chi-chi split-level apartment en Paris, is played by Juliette Binoche, and furthermore is watched over by the writer-director Claire Denis, who grants the character a dozen or more of the dreamiest close-ups known to man-or-womankind, aware as she surely is that, on some level, she is watching over a version of herself. (Denis is only as guilty of this seductive narcissism as, say, a Woody Allen or an Ed Burns.)

So here is Binoche's Isabelle, and here are the men with whom she spends her days and nights. At first, Denis and her co-writer, the author Christine Angot, have her paired with Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), a beardy, married asshole - you can tell as much from the way he treats a bartender in an early scene - who seems to regard people as pieces of furniture to be reconfigured around him. Later, however, there is an actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who initially seems like an improvement, in that he's actually splitting from his wife, but proves altogether too keen to get into Isabelle's pants, and - once he has - to call the whole thing off. There is even, at one point, a grim-faced stranger in a flasher's mac (Paul Blain) who would seem an unlikely course for our heroine to pursue were it not that the pair share a slow dance to Ella James' "At Last" in the latest of Denis's oddly transcendental scenes in provincial nightclubs.

As these characters dance round one another, and the camera dances round them all, it becomes clear we're watching an artful form of speed-dating: a series of conversations that last just so long as it takes to prove the relationship a non-starter, and then - ding - onto the next suitor. (One crucial line of dialogue, all but thrown away: Isabelle's daughter is spending the week with her father, allowing maman to pack in as many heightened romantic and/or erotic encounters as she chooses.) It should be said that, even at 95 minutes, the film flirts with the indulgent: set it against Denis' 2002 film Vendredi Soir, a romance that was also a mystery, both a film noir and a dream, and it starts to seem extra flimsy and doodly. Isabelle has an effete male confidant - a trope long discredited by admirers of romantic cinema - though it's a uniquely French touch that the two should convene outside a fishmonger's, and that he should invite her to what we're assured is "an excellent contemporary arts festival".

What it has in its favour is Binoche, insanely watchable in her tendency to veer from tears to hiccupy laughs in the space of a single sequence; an insistence that middle-aged intimacy should be taken seriously, rather than regarded as cutesy, perverse or odd; and a desire to comprehensively anatomise a highly strung creative type whose emotions are as the shifting sands. It is both the film's strength, and its weakness, that Isabelle herself doesn't know exactly what she wants: she's forever hesitating when she perhaps should be decisively walking away (in that "perhaps" lies the cause of her hesitation), giving up when it might be preferable to hold on, throwing up her hands in moody - yet funny - rants about the privilege of others, blind to her own status as a successful artist living in a split-level apartment in the very heart of Paris. This makes her immediately recognisable, but her vacillations mean this isn't an easy character to live with, nor to shape a movie with a beginning, a middle and an end around.

As with certain Catherine Breillat projects, Let the Sunshine In feels increasingly like an attempt to talk through and thereby understand something in its makers' own psyche: it's most clearly seen in the scene where Isabelle descends into the ladies' loos to tell her friend she always climaxes the minute she remembers what a bastard Vincent is. It's a revelation, of course, and an insight of sorts - here is a woman for whom joy in the sheets and joy in the streets are directly opposed - but as with the revelations Breillat throws our way, or Allen's onscreen revelations that he has a penchant for substantially younger women, you can only wonder what we're meant to do with the knowledge, beyond running at top speed in another direction. It may be inevitable that the film's arc bends towards therapy - although, as Isabelle's therapist turns out to be Gérard Depardieu, acting like a horny fortune teller, you can only wish her good luck. For the most part, Denis appears to be asking a question so one-sided as to be practically rhetorical: is there a man in Paris worthy of Juliette Binoche's time and affections? It's good of this filmmaker to go out into the field to research it - and a nice touch that her searching should continue until the very end of the closing credits - but I'm not so sure we didn't know the answer to this one all along.

Let the Sunshine In is now playing in selected cinemas, and is also available to stream at Curzon Home Cinema.

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