LET THE SUNSHINE IN
Director: Claire Denis
Runtime: 92 minutes
Mostlyindies.com grading: C+
If there is something one can state about acclaimed French film director Claire Denis is that she definitely is unpredictable. Most directors tend to have a connected style in their storytelling, and that, one can say, defines the director’s body of work. With Denis, you can’t really say her pictures have a theme, a sense that one story somehow flows right into the other even when some of her greatest films (Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum, and White Material) have taken place in Africa. Her 2013 film Bastards (Les salauds) was a compelling black hole masquerading as film-noir; the movie reeked of pure, conscious evil that lay within its characters. It was almost a horror movie by way of the human exploitation (and particularly the subjugation of women to their masculine counterparts).
Her latest entry couldn’t be more divorced from the underbelly of society and is even more removed by anything she has done before. The poorly titled Let the Sunshine In (technically, the title should read Bright Sunshine Inside) is a light as a feather character study of Isabelle (luminously played by Juliette Binoche), an artist going from one relationship to the next, each one ending in what seems to be an ellipsis. When we first see her, she’s in the middle of having sex with a married banker, That doesn’t end well, predictably so. She moves right into the arms of an actor, and then into yet an unnamed man who sweeps her off of her feet in a club to the sounds of Etta James’ “At Last“. [I sensed some perverse irony in the selection of this title, and Denis of course, delivered.]
My one problem with the movie stems from the fact that other than a leisurely paced portrait of a woman who’s basically clueless about herself and what she wants, Let the Sunshine In never quite manages to intrigue you about Isabelle’s misadventures in a way that Woody Allen’s female-centric studies do. It takes the very late entrance of a certain French actor posing as one thing, but being something completely different, to neatly explain Isabelle to us, even when she herself remains totally and tonally blind. Perhaps this is what Denis’ movie is meant to be: a snapshot of a ridiculous woman, on a love treadmill, going nowhere. Maybe I need to see this odd little film again when it reaches US cinemas (a thing that seems meant for next year). Directors love to play games on their audiences and remain one step ahead. For now, my impression is that of a movie that didn’t quite deliver despite having a brilliant star on scene for 90 minutes, living, breathing, and failing to love.
There is an undercurrent of similarities between Anne, the grieving mother in Piero Messina’s debut feature film L’Attesa (The Wait) and the grieving mother and widow she played a little under a quarter of a century ago in Krzystof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue). Both women start off losing a loved one, but where Julie retreats into her inner world and virtually disappears into the streets of Paris only to find herself through her dead husband’s last musical composition for the Unification of Europe, Anne remains a mystery only unto herself and the loss that pains her. I’m perfectly okay with that–I tend to gravitate to stories where characters move within their own little psychodramas that may or not have a perfect resolution. However, L’Attesa suffers from too much pretension and too little substance and fails to bring any closure on any level, and that to me is a problem.
We know from the start that Anne has lost her son Giuseppe. We don’t know how, but that it seems, doesn’t matter. We next see his girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laage, previously seen on this side of the pond in the excellent movie Breathe [Respire], which debuted here at the 2015 Rendezvous with French Cinema) arriving for a visit. It seems Giuseppe had invited Jeanne to visit him at his mother’s house before the events that start the movie. When she arrives, she’s greeted with a silence that is frankly, unsettling — almost Gothic. It doesn’t help that the house is darker than the mansion in The Others save for some dim blue lights coming from the stained glass windows. It also doesn’t help that the hostess (Anne) is so out of sorts it’s a wonder she can even speak. That no one in the house informs Jeanne what has transpired is an oddity in itself, and makes me wonder, am I in the middle of a thriller? Is something else amiss that I’m going to eventually find out? Is Giuseppe a male version of Rochester’s wife, in Jane Eyre, locked in a dungeon or an attic and perhaps Anne is deranged? And if she is, what mess has Jeanne gotten herself into?
No. L’Attesa plays its cards firmly against its chest and reveals rien. We are left with two women continuously circling each other, attempting to make conversation, observing, yet never totally giving in. Why Anne makes the choice she makes is beyond any comprehension unless there’s that “verbalizing would eventually make something unthinkable real”, but even then — it just strains credibility and turns a story that had enormous potential into images in chiaroscuro that really don’t amount to much. L’Attesa only saves itself from being a terrible mess by the performances of Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laage who foil each other perfectly. Other than that, it’s an okay debut for Piero Messina (who has worked as assistant director for Paolo Sorrentino and it shows), but not much else.