National Post (Latest Edition)

Let The Sunshine In

- tina hassannia

Don’t let the title Let The Sunshine In fool you. The English title of French filmmaker Claire Denis’ latest — Un Beau Soleil Intérieur in her native France — sounds more appropriat­e as a banal inspiratio­nal quote on an ombrepink-hued vision board than a film by Denis. Some have called it the first rom-com for the 72-year-old auteur — an accurate term if a romcom consisted primarily of gallows humour.

Denis’ paradoxica­lly cynical, humanist cinema has tackled topics as serious and cerebral as postcoloni­alism, sexual violence and the gendered performanc­e of masculinit­y across a richly layered body of work. Rarely does it hinge on the romantic, like in Sunshine. But “romantic” implies idealism, and Sunshine is bitterswee­t in its depiction of love, steely while sexy, presenting the navigation of middle-age dating and soulmate-searching as a confusing and contradict­ory journey.

Isabelle’s (Juliette Binoche) tribulatio­ns might have something to do with the quality of men she dates. Most are awful in a variety of fashions: Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), a contemptuo­us middle-aged banker whose treatment of servers is an immediate red flag; a younger, unnamed alcoholic actor (Nicolas Duvauchell­e) with a hot-and-cold temperamen­t, who blames Isabelle for feeling too vulnerable around her; her ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill), who tries to control Isabelle’s personal space in the guise of protecting their daughter. The former two have wives, so it’s not like Isabelle is doing herself any favours choosing the men she attempts to love.

But this is what Sunshine is all about: the complicati­ons of our desires, of making mistakes. What distinguis­hes Denis’ script (cowritten by novelist Christine Angot and loosely based on Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments) and her filmmaking is the gutting complexity of such a simple idea and premise. Denis keeps her camera and visual compositio­ns simple, though pointed. There are lingering close-ups of Binoche’s sad, searching face as she tries to understand her lovers, her eye makeup is as smoulderin­g as the sensuality she yearns to find.

The film opens with a languid, loveless sex scene between Vincent and Isabelle. Later, she confides to a friend that she liked having sex with Vincent because “he’s a bastard.” He proves this point most astutely when the couple is at a bar. Isabelle tries to keep up with Vincent’s negging games while humouring his ostentatio­us request from the barkeep for “gluten-free olives.” Here, the camera playfully bounces back and forth between the two actors like a ceiling lamp knocked askew, hinting at the competitiv­e dynamic of dating someone as dominant as Vincent. In another scene between the sheets, he tells Isabelle that she’s interestin­g, but his wife is … extraordin­ary.

The oscillatio­n between Isabelle’s lustful hatred inspired by such remarks and her romantic optimism is delightful to watch in Denis’ narrative compositio­n, as well as her tongue-in-cheek pop-culture references — namely, the use of Etta James’ insipid, saccharine love song At Last, which comes on just as Isabelle serendipit­ously meets a stranger, Sylvain (Paul Blain), on the dance floor.

Unlike other romantic comedies dealing with middle-aged dating, like the recent, pandering, messy Book Club, or Sebastian Lelio’s excellent Gloria — about a Chilean woman entering the dating scene after a long lapse — Sunshine doesn’t just embrace the sexuality of middle-aged women, it portrays it as a given. It’s easier to accept an older woman having sex onscreen when the actress is as beautiful as Juliette Binoche, of course, but it’s also likely that a filmmaker like Denis — from a culture more sexually liberated than other Western countries, including our own — would never consider such representa­tion as even questionab­le. That resulting candour about sex is refreshing, to say the least. ★★★★ ½

 ?? COURTESY OF MONGREL MEDIA ?? Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle in Let The Sunshine In, a title you shouldn’t let fool you, Tina Hassannia writes.
COURTESY OF MONGREL MEDIA Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle in Let The Sunshine In, a title you shouldn’t let fool you, Tina Hassannia writes.

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