Over the course of her acclaimed three-decade career, French auteur Claire Denis has flirted with a variety of genres, infusing her piercing dramas with touches of dance (Beau Travail), horror (Trouble Every Day), and suspense (The Intruder)—not to mention a dreamy lyricism (most notably, her masterpieces Friday Night and 35 Shots of Rum) that makes one think she might someday make the medium’s most hypnotic musical. Her latest, Let the Sun Shine In (Un beau soleil interieur), continues in that tradition, as its portrait of mid-life emotional discontent often comes close to resembling a romantic comedy, albeit one marked by the director’s trademark rhythmic pacing and sensual visuals. That impression is only solidified when a boorish character, upon being thrown out by his lover, describes the proceedings as akin to a “tacky bedroom farce.” Although if you ask Denis herself, her newest offering is anything but a frothy comedic confection.
“No, the origin was really a tragedy, you know,” the filmmaker says a few days following Let the Sun Shine In’s premiere at the New York Film Festival. Pointing out that her story, about the up-and-down dating travails of middle-aged Parisian Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), is rooted in a poignant sense of both loneliness and the dissatisfaction that comes from striving and failing to remedy that condition, Denis says she never conceived of the project as a lighthearted affair. “She [Isabelle] could not find real love. So it was not at all like a comedy,” she laughs. That said, “We knew—the writer Christine [Angot] and I—so much about that [subject], we were laughing about ourselves in a way.”
No matter its wounded heart, Let the Sun Shine In is considerably more swoon-worthy than Denis’ past two offerings, 2009’s African civil war-set White Material and 2013’s thriller-esque Bastards. Nonetheless, it shares with her prior work—which regularly involves the convergence of Europe and Africa, born from Denis’ own childhood spent in colonial West Africa—an intense interest in plumbing the tumultuous ins and outs of human desire. Here, that issue manifests itself in the saga of Binoche’s Isabelle, a divorced mother and artist whose eagerness to find love and happiness is complicated by the fact that she’s not exactly sure what, precisely, she craves in a partner.
Let the Sun Shine In began as a modernized take on a classic, only to develop into its final form once Denis began writing it with Angot. “I was offered to do an adaptation of Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments,” she explains. “Then we decided—and I told the producer—‘Let’s do our own. We adapt nothing.’” The resultant film is at once cheerful and raw, aching and absurd, traversing a dating scene that feels like a minefield littered with amorous dangers and disappointments. From a coarse banker (Xavier Beauvois) whose bluntness is both repulsive and enticing, to a flighty married actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who can’t quite decide if he wants to spend the night with her (and then afterwards regrets his decision), to an ex-husband who conjures up memories of better days gone by, to a medium (Gerard Depardieu, who’s publicly slandered Binoche in the past) with amusing advice for his client, Isabelle’s choices are at once bountiful and slim, each of them appealing to some fundamental part of her, and yet far from capable of fulfilling her in a comprehensive manner.
In a film marked by subtle aesthetics—visuals fixated on hands, faces and bodies in charged proximity to each other, courtesy of Denis’ longtime cinematographer Agnes Godard; an expressive score by frequent Denis collaborator Stuart Staples, lead singer of Tindersticks—the focus always remains on Isabelle’s disorderly inner fluctuations. While out with colleagues at a bar one night, Isabelle is asked to dance by a mysterious man (Paul Blain) with whom she’ll soon fall into a fleeting tryst—one that concludes, as quickly as it began, after another suitor suggests the guy is wrong for her. It’s perhaps the material’s most enticing sequence, capturing the sort of heady, throw-caution-to-the-wind euphoria of simply existing in a blissful moment, even if one knows it can’t last once night turns to day. For Denis, the song to which Binoche and Blain’s strangers sway is, in a certain sense, the key to Let the Sun Shine In’s beautifully sad spirit.
“The thing for me, the heart of the story, would be Etta James, and her song ‘At Last,’” explains Denis. “That could have been the title of the film in a way, you know? So it started with that. And also for Juliette Binoche, I told her Etta James will be an example [of the mood]. So there is something of that song, somewhere, everywhere, in variations.”
To watch Binoche in Let the Sun Shine In is to watch a subtle master at work, her performance vacillating between elation and despondence, yearning and disgust, with a fluidity that’s all the more moving for being so natural. It’s a role that’s tailor-made for the 53-year-old star, allowing her to tap into her humorous side while still affording an opportunity to root her performance in a very real, melancholy hunger for companionship. Though Denis admits Binoche wasn’t the direct inspiration for Isabelle, she quickly proved to be ideal for the part.
“When we were writing the script, we had no one in mind,” the director confesses. “She [Binoche] had read the script with her agent, and she said “It’s for me! Nobody else but me!” And I said ‘Yes, yes! Let’s do it together. We’ve known each other for a long time.’” Even more than their prior acquaintance (or the actresses’ illustrious resume and incontestable talent), it was Binoche’s vivaciousness that immediately convinced Denis to look no further for her leading lady. “She is so beautiful. She’s so alive. She’s so full of life. She’s like nothing desperate—her body is not desperate. She’s full of sexiness. So it was obvious that a film with her would become not a desperate agony, but full of sexiness and beauty.”
The unaffected agility of Let the Sun Shine In is a byproduct of careful planning and meticulous execution, says Denis. “We had written 34 blocks, 34 fragments. And I thought it was better to have no time connection between them. As if each block was next to each other without the next day, the day before, months later, that kind of thing,” she explains. As to whether Binoche’s seemingly off-the-cuff turn was developed through on-set improvisation, Denis is adamant. “No, there was absolutely none. It was completely the dialogue that we had written. Or, I would say, the monologue. There was no space for improvisation at all. It’s to tell you how great Juliette is as an actress. Natural doesn’t mean improvisation, you know?”
Emblematic of her varied artistic impulses, Denis will follow up Let the Sun Shine In with her first English-language film, High Life, a sci-fi effort about convicts who strike a deal to have their sentences reduced in return for venturing to a black hole. It’s yet another unconventional undertaking for the director, and one that will reunite her with Binoche as well as feature André Benjamin (aka André 3000) and, as headliner, Robert Pattinson. Given that production is just underway, she’s loath to discuss specifics about it, admitting, “I will wait until the film is finished. I cannot talk about a film when I’m in the process of shooting; it’s not possible.”
Still, she’s not coy about the obvious reason she chose to collaborate with the Twilight and Good Time star, proclaiming that Pattinson’s allure is undeniable. “What’s appealing to me [about him] is appealing to everyone, I guess. Is appealing altogether. I’m very happy with him!”