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Behold: Juliette Binoche, breasts heaving, mouth open, hair splayed against a white bedsheet. Bisecting the screen from the chest up, she gazes at the ceiling — and out onto the viewer. The camera, rotating slowly from its overhead perspective, lingers for a full six seconds, the diagonal of her body lateral by the end.
If this is not a typical opening shot, this is also not your typical sex scene. Cutting to the glistening hairline of a middle-aged man, it may seem as though the first shot were from his perspective as he approaches his lover — but given the distance and movement of the camera, that seems wrong. Rather, the film has captured how the woman has imagined herself in the moments before the act: ready and waiting in a light all her own.
Such artful reverie in the throes of female desire is what keeps Claire Denis’s latest film, Let the Sunshine In, out of the realms of rom-com romping and firmly in the lineage of this master auteur. Toss in the fact that our lusty female lead is 54 years old, and the film feels downright deviant. But for all the half-dozen dudes Binoche beds throughout the film (across all categories of age, class, and waistband), the only real vulgarity involves the mindfucks to which the protagonist, Isabelle, is subjected on her hunt for lasting love.
“There’s a man in Paris who finds you extraordinary,” says the married banker (Xavier Beauvois) in a local bar, imploring Isabelle to touch his hard-on through his “soft flannel” trousers — just before telling her, “I’ll never leave my wife.” There’s the tattooed, alcoholic thespian (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who regrets their one-night-stand, insisting it’s “not a love thing” amid tortured equivocation. Then there’s the smarmy art world colleague (Bruno Podalydès) who questions her audacity to fall for someone who cuts hair for a living. “How does he get by? On welfare?” he taunts, over the clinking of café forks.
As the first collaboration between the two French powerhouses, Let the Sunshine In has been dubbed a rom-com — and it is insofar as our heroine, a successful painter and divorcee, drinks and sleeps with a lot of men and frets about it later (sometimes to her over-sharing gay pal at the corner poissonnerie). But the flirty fizz of the genre comes with a shot of top-shelf pathos; the laughs are few and the sighs are heavy. As a woman who rocks a leather jacket and V-neck tee, bra straps peeking in all the right ways, Isabelle’s issue isn’t landing a man, it’s finding one worth keeping.
“I’m in love with you,” she says in thigh-high stilettos, confronting the scoundrel who won’t call her back. “Take care of me, a tiny bit.” From Binoche, such a declaration feels less needy than frank, less vulnerable than defiant; she demands both intimacy and accountability, and without the latter she struts away. “She’s more or less listening to their blah-blah,” Denis said of Isabelle in an interview with the Independent. “Her problem is finding what she thinks would be the right guy for her. The one true love she needs…She just keeps on listening. Expecting something, you know.”
This expectation that things could change backfires when, time and again, they do not. “Is this my life?” Isabelle wonders aloud, struggling to pull off her pesky boots from a velvet chaise longue. “Why can’t it be different for once?” In these questions endure an earnestness that Binoche made famous 30 years ago in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Denis dares to suggest that the vicissitudes of desire need not let up as one ages.
At 71, the West-Africa raised director has plumbed the depths of female agency before (Chocolat, White Material), though arguably not in such an unabashedly raw and sexual way. “She’s the most authentic punk that I’ve even met in my life,” Robert Pattinson told IndieWire about working on Denis’s forthcoming sci-fi and English-language debut (in which Binoche also appears). Pattinson’s punk credentials notwithstanding, it’s a telling statement about a pioneer who has risen among the ranks in one of the most brutally sexist industries.
But Denis shirks gendered modifiers like Isabelle does childish men. “When you say ‘female director’ I already want to stop this conversation!” she told a male journalist at the Irish Times last week. “Female director? I feel like I am an animal. I am a female director like this is a female bird. No, I am a director—good or bad I don’t know. But I am a woman.”
Let the Sunshine In marks her biggest US opening box office to date, a record achieved not by capitulating to the strictures of the rom-com genre but by pulling the rug from under its tired mythology. Through an eros of erasure more than ecstasy, Denis doesn’t let us bask in its pleasures for long; (spoiler alert) nor does doe-eyed Isabelle wind up with the man of her dreams. “You need someone authentic,” says a candlelit soothsayer (Gérard Depardieu) in the film’s final scene. “From what I see, you need something authentic.” For anyone weary of shallow romance, this film feels exactly that.