The first time we hear Etta James crooning “At Last” in Let the Sunshine In—the surprising new romantic comedy by French filmmaker Claire Denis—its ill-timed background music drifting through a bar as the love-hungry artist Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is getting her heart broken. “Ill answer the question youre not asking,” says Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), the unctuous, married banker Isabelle has been seeing. “Ill never leave my wife. Youre charming, but my wife is extraordinary.” The movie opens with Isabelle and Vincent mid-sex, the former coaxing a climax out of her partner with such patience you almost wonder if it isnt she who ought to be leaving him. “Am I with him?” she asks herself later that night, after their talk at the bar. “Am I not? I dont know.”
The next time Isabelle hears “At Last,” its on the dance floor. Vincent is long gone. So is a handsome man weve come to know only as “The Actor” (Nicolas Duvauchelle), whos also married, and who also proves to be a romantically tepid letdown. Isabelle, dancing alone, is approached by a rough-hewn man in a leather jacket. They sway and tremble together to Etta; its the beginning of a decent romance. But its Isabelle who does the heart-breaking this time, spewing a fabricated, hurtful set of anxieties about “social milieu” and class status his way, insights spoon-fed to her by yet another monied artist-type angling to get into her pants.
Thats to say nothing of the effete bugaboo who insists on talking up Isabelle every time she visits the fish market, or the black gallerist with whom she briefly holds hands before he declares hed rather not rush into things, or the handsome young cab driver who makes eyes at her as they sit listening to public radio in comfortable silence—or Isabelles ex-husband, still in the picture.
Isabelle clearly has no problem getting a date, and even less trouble getting laid. But as Let the Sunshine In nimbly shows, its love itself, long overdue, that she craves. Its the question at the center of every timeless, pining love song—hence the recurrence of “At Last,” and the beauty with which it maps out the subtly profound arc of a lovers desire.
Lovey-dovey nonsense maybe, but Deniss film—rare in its perception and truth, and rarer still in the generosity of its ideas—makes you buy into it. The movie, co-written by Denis and the novelist Christine Angot, is a loose adaptation of Roland Barthess seminal theoretical volume A Lovers Discourse, from 1977, a plotless work of structuralist theory. Barthes wanted to trace and assemble the inner life of love; Deniss film turns those inward revelations outward, and lets them loose on the world in the form of a hungering, spontaneous, clear-eyed but anxious Juliette Binoche—who delivers the sort of soul-baring performance weve come to expect, but with a humor and candor rare for even her.
The film is worthy of study for the script alone—and for the pinwheeling emotional turns and sudden flashes of feeling Denis and Angot concoct for Isabelle, which reveal as much to us as they seem to reveal to her. Denis loves to dwell on faces riddled with inner conflict, to cut suddenly to startling close-ups mid-conversation that seem to evoke a mind at work. In one drawn-out scene with “The Actor,” the question of want becomes so vexed that like him and Isabelle, we lose all sense of whether theyre coming or going, whether theyll sleep together or not, whether they want each other or not. “It feels good to stop all that talking,” one of them says once they finally nail it down, so to speak. “I thought it would never end.” Desire, in this movie, is characterized as a series of choices, pivots, chances. Denis focuses on parts of Isabelles body to convince us of as much: her hand on the car door as she decides whether to flee a dumb flare-up, her feet as she walks toward romantic opportunity or away from it.
Itd be unlike Denis—whose far-flung features over the last 30 years have ranged from the luridly modern vampirism of 2001s Trouble Every Day to films tackling war, colonialism, French modernity, and so on—to make a straightforward romantic comedy. But one of the thrills of Let the Sunshine In is that the film is also so wholly, unabashedly satisfying on those terms—though not without bite. The swooning here is undercut by anxiety, rage, and disappointment, often as a punch line, as if delivered with a wry wink from off-camera.
And Binoche almost literally glows throughout the film, even when enraged. With a gaze thats affectionate and mature, revelatory but not exploitative, Denis revels in Binoches beauty, as well as in the pure physical fact of her. “Its like my love life is behind me,” says Isabelle—though you have a hard time believing it. “Its all over. Theres nothing left.”
It is, of course, the premise of a romance that she be proven false. But even as Let the Sunshine In ultimately veers toward that possibility, theres a slyness to it. The movie is too smart to serve us a traditional happy ending—and too pure a romance to deny us the pleasure of one.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:In Photos: Bohemian “It Girls” Gisela Getty and Jutta WinkelmannPaul and wife Gisela, in London, 1974.Photo: By Brian Aris/Camera Press/Redux.Gisela and Jutta, photographed by Klaus Baum, in Kassel, Germany, 1966.Photo: From the Collection of Gisela Getty.Gisela, Timothy Leary, and Jutta, Los Angeles, 1992.Photo: By Douglas Kirkland.Paul (in shearling jacket) leaves a Rome police station following his kidnapping, January 1974.Photo: By Claudio Luffoli/AP Images.Gisela, Dennis Hopper, and Jutta, in Paris, 1991.Photo: By Joerg Reichardt/from the Collection of Gisela Getty.David Blue, Lainie Kazan, Bob Dylan, Robert De Niro, Sally Kirkland, Ronee Blakley, and Gisela at the Roxy, in Hollywood, 1976.Photo: By Brad Elterman.Jutta Winkelmann, John Paul Getty III, and Gisela Getty, photographed by Claudio Abate, in Rome, 1973, shortly before Pauls abduction.Photo: From the Collection of Gisela Getty.PreviousNext