Claire Denis’ latest film opens with an image of female pleasure, introducing us to Isabelle, played by Juliette Binoche, as she is in the midst of having sex with her lover. It’s a striking scene, so frank and unadorned it looks unsimulated, but never really “raw” in the self-consciously avant garde manner of the New French Extremity either. Instead, the camera is fluid, curious and interested, paving the way for a film that brims with cruisey sociality as JIsabelle makes her way from one lover to the next, men whose lives are elsewhere, as she tries to find the best way to make “the friendliness of the world” accommodate her into its design. Although she’s an artist, we see very little of her art, while we only discover her family life accidentally, since Denis never permits us to meet her daughter, or to spend any significant time dwelling on her marriage and her current relationship with her ex-husband.
Instead, Let the Sunshine In devotes nearly all its energy to Isabelle’s yearnings and romantic desires. While it’s clear that she can get sex easily enough, true pleasure seems to remain elusive in her life, resulting in one flirtatious conversation after another that consists of her and prospective (or former) lovers asking themselves one question after another. In these exchanges, which make up a considerable part of the film, Isabelle perpetually refuses to stabilise the field of desire between her and whoever she is speaking to, a gesture that makes her more naked than undressing ever could. As a result, every conversation feels like a question of some sort, even or especially when it doesn’t contain actual questions, especially since Juliette is always second-guessing herself, sometimes out of what appears to be real insecurity, and sometimes more from her prescience that procrastination, hesitation and deliberation is inherently conducive to elongating and elaborating desire. To that end, Denis opts for cross-editing that doesn’t quite match up, or else fluid camerawork that never quite settles on an object, or anchors itself in one conversational participant, resulting in a flux of awry, oblique relations of of bodies and faces that seem to encapsulate Isabelle’s observation that “we are never satisfied, things never go well…we satisfy our desires, but it never works,” a sentiment that could also describe Denis’ oeuvre as a whole.
Yet Let the Sunshine isn’t merely a study of desire, but of love, since from the outset it seems clear that what Isabelle wants is to be loved, and to experience reciprocal love. Although she experiences love easily and naturally, she’s continually confronted by men who tell her that what she – and they – are experiencing is not love, as much as they might admire her for her romantic aspirations. In a space in which love seems more and more defined by men, Isabelle’s movement between men becomes more cruisey, atonal and dissonant as the film proceeds, even as it’s accompanied by an ever more apologetic orientation to the romantic world as well. Thanking every man she meets or encounters for spending time with her, but also growing more restless and curious in her movement from man to man, Isabelle forces the camera into an odd space in which it is both regarding her as an object but also adopting her perspective as a subject, much as the conditions for how and where she can indulge in love seem to be forever determined by the scrutiny of others.
To that end, Denis situates much of the film in fugitive spaces where subjectivity and scrutiny seem to go hand in hand – especially the Parisian public transit system at dusk or in the small hours of the morning, taking us through one hushed, dimly lit zone after another. Against these spaces, it often feels as if Isabelle is ultimately looking for an end to the circuitous conversations that both stimulate and distend her desire, which means looking for an end to the masculine pronouncements about love that those conversations assuage and deflect. For all the depictions of intercourse, one of the most sensuous moments comes with a hug between Isabelle and one of her lovers, a hug that may precede sex, but that outdoes it in eroticism, due to her relieved confession that “It feels good not to talk any more…it felt as if it would never tend.” If Isabelle seeks for a way to migrate desire into romance, or prevent the patterns of desire from becoming too routine to preclude romance, then there’s a prescience that these circuitous conversational lines of flight are always on the verge of become routine themselves. For that reason, Let the Sunshine In is perhaps closer than any of other Denis’ works to a stereotypical “French” film as well, always teetering on the verge of a routine examination of the fugitive nature of desire, but never quite turning into the film that might seem expected, or familiar, from its genre cues.
By the same token, Let the Sunshine In is always on the verge of giving itself over to a postcard-perfect vision of Paris, only for Denis to somehow turn the most clichéd sights – especially the vantage point of the Eiffel Tower – into repositories of a dark and brooding romantic sentience. In part, that’s because of how beautifully she translates this circuitous conversational labour into Isabelle’s hands and haptic life as the film proceeds, gradually converging mouth and hands onto a form of language that at once feels distinctively cinematic, distinctively feminine, and distinctively aligned with what Helene Cixous described as ecriture feminine – women’s writing, or women’s language. By its very definition, women’s language eschews the assumptions of rationality and structure made by regular masculinized language, which perhaps accounts for why the film can only align Isabelle with this language by breaking away from conventional narrative structure altogether, to briefly focus on another middle-aged loner, played in a cameo by Gerard Depardieu, who is going through a crisis of his own and who is, appropriately, named Denis.
Appropriately, because Denis now becomes the locus of the film’s extraordinary final sequence, in which we discover that Denis is not only a psychoanalyst, but Isabelle’s psychoanalyst. The ultimate source of romantic wisdom in the film, his session with her starts as a series of recommendations, but gradually becomes vague and open, promising and not promising Isabelle romantic fulfilment in the same breath. Moreover, the type of fulfilment he promises defies typical heteronormative definitions of love, since at times he seems to be promising a succession of men, at others a single lover, and at others still a quasi-messianic figure who will transcend the very terms in which this prophecy is cast. As his language becomes vaguer and more erratic, he incoheres the male voice, ending with an inchoate recommendation that “The one may come back – meanwhile, “open.” In its syntactic and lexical indeterminacy (which admittedly may differ in French from the English subtitles), this final pronouncement involutes the masculine rhetoric of love that has defined Isabelle’s world, placing her in the semantic freefall of women’s language, and allowing the other Denis to roll the credits over the scene, which never really concludes, but emerges. As with Mia Hansen-Love’s L’Avenir, then, Denis presents a non-ending, one in which futurity remains open as a category for middle-aged and older women, in one of the most soulful, irreverent and gorgeously awry films of this most recent part of her career.