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What’s a woman alone to do?

Claire Denis’s Let the Sun Shine In (Un Beau Soleil Intérieur)’

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4 minute read
Juliette Binoche is a bright spot in an otherwise joyless affair. (Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.)
Juliette Binoche is a bright spot in an otherwise joyless affair. (Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.)

Finding romance as one gets older doesn’t come easily. Such is the plight of Isabelle, the heroine of director Claire Denis’s Un Beau Soleil Intérieur, wretchedly mistranslated as Let the Sun Shine In in its U.S. release. Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a successful, middle-aged painter, is divorced from a fellow artist. He has custody (it isn’t explained why) of their 10-year-old daughter.

She lives alone in a Parisian flat, and we meet her in the midst of being humped — no politer word will do — by her sometime lover, a banker named Vincent (Xavier Beauvois). He’s immediately unlikable and soon grows insufferable. After what we can infer is his umpteenth act of insult, Isabelle shows him the door, and we settle down to await the arrival of Mr. Right. He doesn’t show up, though, as Isabelle works her way through a rogue’s gallery of contemporary misfits.

Dating game

Exhibit A is an unnamed actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) a good deal younger than Isabelle, a maddening egoist and classic tease. Now he wants it, now he doesn’t, and when he finally gives it up (“Merveilleuse,” Isabelle murmurs to herself), he ends the evening by saying the whole thing should never have happened.

It doesn’t get any better. Isabelle meets Sylvain (Paul Blain) on a dance floor; neither says a word to the other, but chemistry kicks in at once. Sylvain, though, is a proletarian at the bottom of Isabelle’s world — a museum guard — and the difference of class and education sours things for her, although in one otherwise unmotivated scene she turns on colleagues on a country excursion to denounce them for being, apparently, bourgeois. That’s how we know, see, she isn’t just being a snob.

Isabelle’s career, meanwhile, is chiefly represented by a scene in which she spreads a canvas on her studio floor and starts swabbing black paint over it. This, she says, is her “life,” but she seems to take extraordinarily little satisfaction from it. What really fills her world is the desperate fear of being alone; it constitutes most of her character. Even when welcomed by a new gallery owner who assures her of her genius, she is consumed by jealousy at the (apparently false) news that the woman had an affair with Isabelle’s ex-husband (Laurent Grévill).

Things get bad enough that Isabelle goes back for a night to her ex. That doesn’t work out either, and he accuses her of emotionally damaging their daughter with her teary funks. A final candidate appears, Marc (Alex Descas), a colleague whose hand she takes on a walk, but who puts off anything further by saying that he too needs to think about it. Paris, it seems, really isn’t for lovers anymore.

(Image via imdb.com.)
(Image via imdb.com.)

Not-so-merry-go-round

The film’s penultimate scene shows a couple in a parked car — the first and only scene without Isabelle — whose male occupant tells his female companion (what else?) he doesn’t think he’ll be seeing her anymore. The face is shadowy but reappears soon after as Gérard Depardieu, who plays a love psychic that Isabelle, presumably at her wits’ end, has gone to consult.

Depardieu, his battered features in relentless closeup, natters endlessly about the need to remain “open,” as if Isabelle weren’t all but wearing a sign around her neck advertising that she is. He’s still going on when the film credits go up around him — apparently the only thing that could bring this pointless merry-go-round to a stop.

Let the Sun Shine In comes with a Cannes award and a slew of admiring reviews, topped off by A.O. Scott’s description of its director as “consistently the most interesting French filmmaker of the 21st century.” I can only warn the unwary viewer and include the reaction of the audience I sat with when, realizing Depardieu’s grift, it burst into laughter.

What can’t be funny in any sense, though, is the abuse of Juliette Binoche’s great talents. She hangs in there gamely for an hour and a half that passes as if it were three (and Depardieu, for all we know, may be monologuing still). She gives the hopeless role her all and somehow wrings subtle changes out of the six inches of character she’s given. If there’s a César for best performance — attempted performance, anyway — in an awful film, she wins it hands down.

The French used to do romance about as well as it can be done. The absence of romance in our anomic modern society would be a theme, too. But the sheer puerility exhibited in Let the Sun Shine In makes you wonder whether all the adults haven’t simply left the room.

What, When, Where

Let the Sun Shine In (Un Beau Soleil Intérieur). Written by Christine Angot and Claire Denis; inspired by A Lover's Discourse, written by Roland Barthes; Claire Denis directed. Philadelphia area showtimes.

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