Claire Denis’ loopy, tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy “Let the Sunshine In” stars Juliette Binoche as Isabelle, a contemporary French artist who becomes nearly obsessed with her search for love. Or lust. Whichever is within reach.
Isabelle jumps from one lover’s arms to another’s like there’s hot lava on the floor, and they are her safehaven of dry land. And dry so many of them are. The first is Vincent (actor-filmmaker Xavier Beauvois), a married banker with a jealous streak who negs Isabelle like he took a weekend course from The Pickup Artist. In one scene at a bar, he fills her up with backhanded compliments about how great it is that she feels comfortable doing such frivolous things like making art, while he tasks the bartender with completing arbitrary requests, like setting down a bottle of Perrier in exactly the right way.
Luckily, Isabelle ditches this guy, but she’s not single for long. Another lover — also married — quickly gets under her skin when what begins as an artists’ work meeting turns very personal very quickly. The guy (Nicolas Duvauchelle, Denis’ “White Material”) is an actor and is consistently referred to as simply “L’acteur.” Over the course of a single beer, he delivers an unprompted and seemingly endless monologue about all of his violent fugue states and “bad-boy” tendencies as Isabelle just waits for her turn to talk.
This multi-scene courtship is painful to watch, because both characters neurotically dance around their attraction to one another in a manner that manifests itself into hostility and anger, and so both won’t shut up, even though they’re not really saying anything at all, until they finally ravage one another, and Isabelle says what I was feeling myself: “God, I thought the talking would never end.”
But L’acteur is no good, either. Isabelle longs for something real but continually seeks out the fiction, the relationship that’s bound to blow up in her face. She’s got a perfectly good choice of a man in Francois (Laurent Grévill, Denis’ “Bastards”), with whom she has a child, but this is a woman whose enemy is perfection; she’s addicted to the beginning of a relationship but instinctively runs at the first sign of trouble, even if the trouble is something she’s manufactured herself. Isabelle is the friend you must convince that every happy couple endures hard times.
The cracks begin to show in Isabelle’s pleasant façade when she accepts an invitation for a trip into the country. In one pivotal moment, she loses it on an hours-long property tour, screaming and howling for the inane conversation to stop, but nobody seems to care, as they all have a great time later at the bar. She’s mercurial, and this film is as much a statement about the temperament of artists as it is about love. An artist can fly off the handle in rage, and yet her friends think nothing of this emotion, which is sure to be as fleeting as her romances.
The only cardinal sin an artist can commit, according to Isabelle’s artist friends, is being with someone who is not also an artist, who would never understand this impetuous lifestyle. When Isabelle sleeps with a man who sweeps her off her feet at a bar and then has him move in with her, the artist community is in a panic: Has this guy even painted anything before?
And though Gérard Dépardieu only shows up for the finale of the film, as a psychic truth-teller, he’s the perfect tag to this story, this personal quest of Isabelle’s that shows absolutely no signs of ending anytime soon. Of course she goes to the psychic. Of course she wants him to give her an easy answer (one she will inevitably ignore or contradict after a while anyway), a way to predict the future and cut out the hard parts of learning and growing.
Binoche being in her 50s also brings more meaning to this film, which showcases the fact that the manic search for connection one feels in their 20s doesn’t just disappear with age. There’s no magical time when a person suddenly feels satisfied and does not wonder if possibly there is more to life and love than the day-in, day-out doldrums.
When films are made about straight men in this predicament, they’re often considered explorations of a “midlife crisis,” but Denis’ film poses the questions: What if crises aren’t limited to a certain age, and what if love itself is the crisis?