Director: Claire Denis
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Gerard Depardieu
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Claire Denis isn’t the first name that springs to mind when you hear the phrase ‘romantic comedy.’ The revered French director is famous for her intense dramas, from notorious cannibal horror Trouble Every Day to the chilling Bastards. Even her warmer movies – 35 Rhums, say – have a Gallic melancholy that largely keeps belly laughter at bay. But now, Let The Sunshine In is being marketed as a case of Denis letting down her hair in a genre not usually ruled by art-house maestros. It doesn’t take long to see that this isn’t quite true.
Romcom conventions offer no interest for Denis, except for how they can be reimagined in her style. The romance here is unrequited and full of pain, the comedy an acerbic satire about the plight of a middle-aged woman, Isabelle (Binoche), who is trying to find the perfect man in a world where no such fella exists. The exhortation of the title apparently hasn’t reached cinematographer Agnes Godard, who refuses the soft-focus glow of most romcoms, nor composer Stuart A. Staples (of Tindersticks fame), whose plaintive piano-led score won’t have audiences dancing in the aisles. Instead, this is a wry, serio-comic look at a character who has based emotional satisfaction on her love life.
The downside to this is apparent from the start, a rather dispiriting rut with her odious, rich lover Vincent (Beauvois), a guy who later tells Isabelle to her face she’s not in his wife’s league. From there, the film charts Isabelle’s various false starts with potential replacements: an indecisive actor, a mansplaining colleague, a working-class pick-up in a bar. Just when you think Denis can’t possibly include every paradigm of masculinity for Isabelle to meet, along comes Gerard Depardieu to prove you wrong. The result is a staccato, episodic affair – Denis’ inspiration was Roland Barthes’ experimental novel A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, which helps to explain why it’s so different from, say, He’s Just Not That Into You.
There’s a brittle wit throughout and some smart observations; Godard’s camera tends to capture the doubt and deceit underlying the characters. Yet the Brechtian structure never quite sustains enough emotional rhythm to make us care in the way that Things to Come (another film where an A-list French star plays a woman trying to find herself in later life) did. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Binoche is superb, playing against type in that her customarily elegant, smart persona is here shown to mask a fragile character who overthinks and overcomplicates her life. Seeing how Denis exposes Isabelle and her partners – without judgement and with keen insight – mostly makes up for the slight narrative. And if you’re willing to risk spiking yourself on the barbs of Denis’ rom-com roses, the pay-off is a bold final sequence that, finally, gives a hint of the titular sunshine breaking through the clouds.
Let the Sunshine In is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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