In her 2017 film Let the Sunshine In (on Mubi), director Claire Denis and Juliette Binoche (playing Isabelle) create a portrait of middle-aged female desire and honest longing for love, which is both prickly and compassionate. The protagonist Isabelle is recently divorced, though Denis handles time with a mischievous unsureness throughout the supposed short intervals between the many flings in the film. She traipses through a string of relationships with men of diverse ages, professions and classes, who prove to be self-besotted. It’s a talky film, spliced together with squabbles and confrontations, unfurling gently and with a gradual inevitability, in the tradition of a Hong Sang Soo film. Almost all the men are wholly deaf to her yearnings for a consummate love, and also oblivious to her need for some emotional rock.
The beauty is that neither Denis nor Binoche allows the construction of Isabelle to wheedle easy sentimentality and pity from the viewer. Isabelle exists with a fierce determination to navigate her many relationships by herself and on her own terms, though she somehow lets herself get swayed into committing reckless time-tested mistakes. Binoche inhabits the humanity and fallibility of the paradox that belies Isabelle’s circumstance. She has a ferociously free spirit but feels constrained by her occasionally crippling insecurity and the male approbation she keenly desires. She craves the constancy and the certitude of what she calls a “pure, real love”, a love that exceeds mere transactions in the bed.
In her novel A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara writes, “But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate?”
The film keeps ample scope for this kind of articulation, abundantly allowing its characters to vocalise their individual definitions of happiness, solace and the most intimate human connection. Happiness is elusive, residing in the liminal cracks of the conversations at the bar, in the rare tiny place between a fear of commitment and taking the leap. Isabelle grapples with the search for it as she flits failingly between the men, looking for a solid emotional anchor that will level with what she aspires for in a relationship. The conversations with the men are tempered with variances of tentativeness and callous, cruel indecisiveness The film employs a stubbornly fragmentary narrative, unfolding as a series of amorous escapades and encounters that Isabelle conducts with several potential lovers.
Juliette Binoche creates a constantly shifting shape to represent the emotional textures of her character. Isabelle is casually brash and impulsive with her vacillating, misjudged choices in crucial situations, and also simultaneously seems trapped in severely, sharply self-analytical, self-berating outbursts. She is ruthless with the way she can probe her shortcomings and the manner in which she can unravel the elemental truth locked inside each intensified association. She sees through gestures that are authentic and those which are falsely projected and derivative. She enjoys lovemaking with her ex-husband on infrequent occasions, but the minute he tries to preen unnecessarily with sexual inclinations unnatural to him, she senses it, instantly withdraws and vehemently pushes him away. The humour in the film is astringent. “You are charming but my wife is extraordinary,” the boorish banker Vincent declares assertively when she demands a wider emotional investment.
Agnès Godard’s camera and Denis’s gaze make no bones and don’t act coy about revelling in the sensuousness and stillness that Isabelle exudes and that draw men to her. Yet, there is rarely any voyeurism, only a matter-of-fact portrayal of sex, faces shot in handheld, tight and medium close-ups, a restless movement of hands and limbs and anxious thrusts. Denis and Godard intelligently highlight the underpinning of the power binary to the sex between Vincent and Isabelle. Denis brims the film with rich visual and emotional candour, aided with terrific honesty of spirit by Binoche. Despite the film being entirely built on the bedrock of consistently ricocheting dialogue between the characters, Denis emphasises the inherent inadequacy of words and any kind of verbal exchange to match the actual tenor of one’s desires and needs. Isabelle embodies the central conceit of the insufficiency of language. She can charm the men with her silky talk, but that is what completely circumscribes her identity and how she is perceived. In spite of being fully comprehending of being viewed as what she calls a “backstreet lover”, she isn’t shy of asking for more, a step beyond the casual sex and talk. She is borne down by the immense weight of the dilemma of being with or breaking away from the married Vincent, who demonstrates a habit of almost owning her by way of dictating what he wants from her and rubbishing everything. She wants him to call on her beyond his random libidinous proclivities, but he is firm about being emotionally devoted and faithful to his wife outside the sexual liaisons with Isabelle.
She is treated odiously by a bunch of narcissistic, self-absorbed men and she comes across as a fabulously messy mosaic of repetitive errors that only render her human and desperately vulnerable to follies. After narrating a sob story about his problems with alcoholism to Isabelle and thereby having sex with her, a theatre actor confesses his shame and regret for having succumbed to his temptations and sleeping with her. He insists he has steadfast love and genuine emotion for no one but his wife. Yet after a few days when he approaches her with the new intention of developing their relationship, she initially is unyielding but quickly clasps an irresolution. She mildly fidgets with the possibility of a future with him and ultimately dismisses it.
In a brilliant scene that is testament to the agility in expressions that can register on Binoche’s face, Isabelle talks with inordinate ecstatic vigour about the orgasms with the banker, and then abruptly segues into sheer heartbreak on her realisation that her love life is behind her. She knows that those orgasms are rooted in an essential artifice, that she derives the pinnacle of sexual fulfilment through contemplating his sheer bastard-ness and her imaginings of the way he might have sex with his wife. The joyous peak and stark troughs of a relationship are charted with a kind of fatalistic cynicism and rare emotional truth attuned to oneself.
Resplendent, Binoche’s performance embraces a courage to demonstrate the full-bodied range of what looking for love entails in its entirety: the conviction in a finality of pure love, disgraces involved therein occasionally, the missteps and awkwardness, the uncertainty of taking the relationship in new risky directions. It’s a performance and a film to adore especially for Binoche’s extraordinary humane perceptiveness and alertness to the old mistakes incurred in each fresh encounter. In all of Isabelle’s loquaciousness, Binoche is able to quietly invoke a subterranean largesse of experience. Isabelle is refreshingly self-aware about her own absurdities. She also has a ten-year-old daughter, whose complaints about her mother’s wild moods are deployed against Isabelle numerous times by her ex-husband, but Denis hardly permits any usually accompanying self-destructive mother’s guilt to creep in. As a psychic truth-teller tells her in the final scene, she must develop her own “interior sun”. It is Binoche’s gift that gives us a character who feels vibrantly, exhilaratingly alive to the many coruscating possibilities of life and love, and who valiantly begins anew each time after a broken bond, with charisma and gusto.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.