Claire Denis’s 2013 film Bastards is a squalid and serpentine anti-thriller, the most lugubrious, nihilistic work in an already bleak oeuvre. In it, Denis depicts, with her usual salaciousness and elusivity, the vindictive stratagem of a sailor whose brother has committed suicide and whose niece is the victim of a barbaric sexual assault that’s left her broken. He ascertains that the man responsible is a wealthy and sleazy septuagenarian, whose wife becomes a desired effigy, an object for masculine revenge. “Give me a handjob,” the old man demands of her, in his first scene. Shooting digitally for the first time, Denis drags the viewer through an aphotic, disconsolate endeavor, infected with the still-lingering influence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. A lurid enigma, erotic noir as tragedy, Bastards is a film that burrows into genre like a parasite, while probing the darkest alcoves of the human heart.
Denis’s latest film, Let the Sunshine In, is, as its name suggests, considerably less despondent, concerned as it is with the fragility, and perseverance, of the heart. Its modesty and intimacy runs the risk of being erroneously labelled slight. It’s a 95-minute reconciliation with love, which has always been something of an unmitigable poison for Denis’s characters. The self-destructive nature of searching for meaning, for a partner, has long fascinated the filmmaker, and here she strips bare that hopeless pursuit. In those diurnal moments, the mundane, unexceptional motions that make up a relationship, Denis disinters the pleasures (however brief) and pain of love.
Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is longing for love. Hers is a Sisyphean desperation. In a world of wolves, she finds selfish and acrimonious men with raging libidos and diminished morals. We first see her naked on her back as a man, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), humps away on top of her—and right away, one may wonder if this is a portrait of a liberated woman or a glimpse from the male gaze. There’s much huffing and moaning and no cumming. Vincent asks if Isabelle came faster with her former lovers, which earns him a slap. Portly and pretentious, a sybarite banker with a posh apartment, royal blue shoes, and an abstract vermilion painting that resembles the blood-streaked wall from Trouble Every Day, Vincent is Isabelle’s first lover in the film. In a bar bedecked with glimmering top-shelf liquors and mood-setting candles, he instructs the bartender to leave him a bottle and two glasses, so he can pour the drinks himself. Denis shoots Isabelle and Vincent’s ensuing conversation with fluid pans instead of traditional reverse shots, evoking love as a continuous stream.
The next time we see the self-pitying Vincent, Isabelle calls him scum and kicks him out. He clings like a stain she can’t scrub out, but she moves on to other lovers, including a beer-swilling actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and a gaunt, purportedly uneducated man (Paul Blain). She brings them home, begging if they hesitate, but fails to find that one true love, the kind you hear about in fairy tales and old French films. Denis regular Alex Descas portrays a man who could be “the one” for Isabelle, but life (and self-destructive tendencies) have a way of ruining these kinds of things. Denis isn’t known for letting her characters have traditionally happy endings, and the tragedy here is how normal that feels: how futile love can be for the unlovable.
The film is inspired by Roland Barthes’s 1977 exegesis The Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, a clinical examination of love that’s comprised of quotes and musings from a medley of canonical and esoteric writers. Turning an unadaptable work of postmodern literature into an incandescent cinematic reverie on love’s follies as a quick side project could have been a masturbatory exercise in intellectualism, but Denis finds the inexorable beauty (and sadness) in that most corrosive and fugacious of feelings. For Isabelle, love is a toxic need. Barthes, not known for sentimentality, discusses love as an intellectual pursuit, an aching inevitability, one to ponder rather than feel. Denis is also not known for producing art of a cuddly nature—her career is rife with barbarities, with the dissolution of lives and loves—yet Let the Sunshine In is easily the most empathetic, heartfelt film of her illustrious career. Throughout, Isabelle’s romantic plight encapsulates the confusion of being alone. The film is garrulous and often uproarious, especially Gerard Depardieu’s late appearance as a psychic charlatan, but within these laughs is a deep, familiar disappointment, the sensation of irreparable loneliness.
Denis’s films reveal themselves with precision and control, and often with a macabre reverence for genre, probing the inherent rot in the human core. Trouble Every Day shrouds itself in the aesthetic of vampires and zombie lore; the poetry and pain in that film are innate in the seduction of venereal destruction, the entanglement of love and sex, love and hate, sex and death. Bastards wears the stoic face of noir so it can cogitate the roles of sex and betrayal. Beau Travail transliterates Herman Melville’s low-key homoerotic sailor tale Billy Budd, in which Melville wrestles, for the final time, with the magnanimity of God and the mendacity of man, as a vituperative study of imperialism and militarism as wanton outlets for flimsy masculinity.
Let the Sunshine In, the closest thing to a rom-com that Denis has made since Friday Night (a film that’s tender yet tormented, and not particularly comedic), feels, thematically and formally, like an epilogue to her favorite theme. It’s gentle yet devastating, like an insincere “I love you” whispered into one’s ear, the duplicity hidden behind upward-curving lips, the pangs of misplaced vulnerability. Isabelle isn’t emotionally reticent, and she opens up quite easily, but she tries to force love, afraid it will never find her. Denis’s films often end with a reveal, a character learning something previously withheld, or the viewer learning that a character knew more than we expected. Here, nothing is learned; nothing changes. Over Depardieu’s lecherous skullduggery Denis lays the end credits, his affably manipulative performance and Isabelle’s swoony obliviousness suggesting that Isabelle will never find what she’s looking for.