Opening at Portland’s plucky occasional art house theater, the Nickelodeon Cinema, on Friday, “Let the Sunshine In” marks the first collaboration between two of the most important women of French cinema.
The teaming of director Claire Denis (“Beau travail,” “35 Shots of Rum”) and actress Juliette Binoche (“Three Colors: Blue,” “Certified Copy,” “The English Patient”) is draw enough, one supposes, for film fans looking to see what the equally formidable cinematic talents will produce, especially since Denis’s most recent film is essentially a showcase for the eternally fascinating Binoche. As Isabelle, a divorced artist with a young daughter and a complicated and frustrating love life, Binoche makes the heroine of “Let The Sunshine In” another of her roster of vivid, thrillingly alive women, even if Isabelle’s fitful quest for love leaves her asking “Is this my life?” after the departure of yet another disappointing man.
For the acclaimed Denis, “Let the Sunshine In” is something of a career departure. Her filmography is one of visually evocative, often almost wordless tales of thwarted desire, missed or slipping connection and enigmatic motivations. In her exquisitely romantic 2002 film “Friday Night,” a Paris traffic jam throws two people together by chance, their mutual, barely articulated growing attraction blossoming into one nearly perfect, isolated night of passion. Here, though, is her first take on what’s essentially the romantic comedy, as the film – very loosely inspired by Roland Barthe’s nonfiction rumination on longing, “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments” – follows Binoche’s Isabelle through an episodic series of encounters that leave her, at various times, exhilarated, heartbroken, defiant and baffled.
There’s a rich, married banker (Xavier Beauvois), flush with trifling desire and assumed privilege; an intense, also married actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), wallowing in indecision and self-absorption; a gallery owner (Bruno Podalydès), whose obvious attraction to Isabelle emerges in paternalistic judgment of the other men in her life; her older ex-husband, whose tender visits to pick up and drop off their daughter sometimes lead to lovemaking, but always leave both of them raw and unsatisfied; a rough-featured working man (Paul Blain) whose open emotionality draws Isabelle close before her doubts about their separate spheres cause her to smother what promise there is in half-believed rationalizations; an older museum curator (Denis regular Alex Descas), whose gentle, patient attraction offers tantalizing glimpses of future possibilities.
If Denis’ previous films traffic in the unspoken, “Let the Sunshine In” serves as a deconstruction of why. Here, almost everything is spoken. Isabelle and the men in her life all circle each other in words, either sparring warily or stammering toward – but never reaching – actual communication. For Binoche, Isabelle marks the challenge of maintaining the character’s integrity, intelligence and depth of feeling, while simultaneously showing how love and desire often make us inarticulate, impulsive and unwise. In a career made up of almost nothing but tours de force, her performance here – like the film itself, really – is more of a subtle triumph, Isabelle’s (admittedly subtler than the American version) rom-com dilemma leaving her, ultimately, incomplete. A late-film appearance by another French acting legend (I’ll let you discover who) as an enigmatic love therapist/psychic underscores the lengths to which the undaunted but exhausted Isabelle will still go for love. That their extended session continues right through the shocking onscreen appearance of the scrolling end credits brings the point home, too.
And yet, Binoche and Denis reveal the admirable optimism even in Isabelle’s woozy, painful, occasionally ridiculous search. The moments when Isabelle’s desires appear in reach – a charged, romantic dance with Blain’s stranger in a bar; a poetically spare, hand-holding walk with the courtly Descas’ – tingle with excitement. (They are also the only times in the film when all those words don’t get in the way.) Denis deploys close-ups of her star with a judiciousness that make Binoche’s already expressive person fairly leap from the screen. Unapologetic in its depiction of a mature woman’s sexual desire and her unwillingness to quench the fullness of that desire, “Let the Sunshine In” might leave you, like Binoche’s protagonist, unfulfilled. But it will also send you out of the theater flush with appreciation for the journey – and its star.
“Let the Sunshine In” is playing at Waterville’s Railroad Square Cinema until Thursday and opens at Portland’s Nickelodeon Cinema on Friday. Not rated: call it an ‘R’ for sensuality and nudity.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Friday-Sunday: “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.” This documentary looks at the formative early years of the career of explosively talented painter, musician and street artist Basquiat. (Pro tip: Makes a great double feature with Julian Schnabel’s stunning 1996 biopic “Basquiat,” starring the great Jeffrey Wright.)
Tuesday, May 29: “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey.” If you want to see a documentary about the life and exploits of a cantankerous mountain-climber’s 80-year career, then this is your lucky week. Plus, it’s called “Dirtbag,” which should be enough enticement for you.