Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In is an exquisite romantic comedy whose laughs are sad and whose sadness is funny. Denis isn’t a filmmaker who lets the complexity of the human emotions that she either captures physically or insinuates psychologically settle into easy interpretation and understanding, and Let the Sunshine In, her lightest film to date, shades its relationship dynamics with existential panic, insecurities, unabashed biases of class, and, of course, an intimate understanding of the sexual politic.
Juliette Binoche provides the perfect gateway drug for Denis into the realm of the rom-com. In both body and mind, the actress’s Isabelle—a divorced Parisian artist who flits rather fickly from one romantic partner to the next—always commands the audience’s attention and curiosity. And Denis meets her star’s quixotic, swooning screen presence with subtle adaptations of her filmmaking to this new genre form. A scene of escalating banter between Isabelle and the rude, married business man that she’s been hate-fucking offers a variation of the shot-reverse-shot grammar that the actors’ blocking would typically call for, as Denis opts for a single take that floats back and forth in dreamy fashion but also with a sense of needling anxiety.
Denis and her co-screenwriter, novelist and playwright Christine Angot, have stated that their inspiration for Let the Sunshine In comes from Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, the 1977 book that also served as the source text for a Hong Kong film adaptation in 2010. The “fragments” in Denis and Angot’s more loose interpretation are often accented by little allusions to the director’s own work and that of her closest peers—an act of retrospection that’s becoming a theme here at Cannes.
Isabelle has a framed image of a bloodied wall from Denis’s Trouble Every Day hanging in her apartment, and at an art gallery, she and a possible romantic interest (Denis regular Alex Descas) admire and discuss the “Skies, September ’10—September ’11” painting by Suzanne Osborne, wife of Denis’s go-to composer, Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples. There’s also a lovely dance scene at a night club, set to Etta James’s “At Last,” that recalls similarly disarming moments in 35 Shots of Rum and Beau Travail.
These auteurist signifiers will be imperceptible to many, but the purpose they seem to serve is to reaffirm that Let the Sunshine In is less a proper narrative than a very personally furnished space for Denis to conduct an exercise, a vignette-like assemblage of romantic situations—not unlike one of Hong Sang-soo’s conceptual sex comedies. Isabelle is the only real character in this film, the one fully dimensional personality; the rest are designed to fill specific roles for her to ping off of, and for Denis to experiment with what effect their antagonisms or encouragements might have. Which is why the final sequence, which does introduce another figure of equal or greater agency, feels so revelatory, and sends the film hurtling down a rabbit hole of new possible directions. Then it ends, unfortunately, but what an ending.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.