This article was written on 16 Oct 2018, and is filled under Film & TV, Media, Politics, Sexualities.

How We Look: #MeToo at the Movies, 2

The premise of Claire Denis’s recent “Let the Sunshine In” (Un beau soleil intérieur) may be a bit unconventional; but then in 2018, it is not the least bit difficult to entertain and pursue through its permutations. Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is a successful Parisian painter on the cusp of 50. She shares custody of her c. 11 year-old daughter, Cécile, with François Mandelbaum, her ex (Lauren Grévill); but truth be told, her imaginary and social lives are far more delegated to her love-life than to the tasks and bearings of motherhood. Or to the project, in league with the ex, of morphing the generic nuclear family into the irreducibly singular “extended family.”

Isabelle is a sexually active woman whose experience has ranged widely. As a cinematography that caresses her skin and rhapsodically frames her lovemaking makes certain to underscore, Isabelle’s been blessed with all the physical attributes allowing her to pursue a quest as explicitly sexual as it is social, connubial, or romantic. In the film’s narrative unfolding, through a series of encounters, some more demanding and time-intensive than others, it configures itself as a status report on the options available to just such a women in 2017-18. The prospects, as readers already guess, are not promising—for all of Isabelle’s beauty and artistic talent. With notable exceptions, the shorthand, “slim pickings in overweight bodies,” aptly encapsulates her predicament. While it is surely Isabelle who motivates the film’s forward progress and endows it with its mostly playful mood of the sexual picaresque, its subject increasingly becomes the men she encounters: who is open and available; what they bring to the table; prospective calculation of what further involvement with them will entail. Binoche brings a relentless empathic receptiveness and readiness for further exploration to her role; yet with all her character’s uncanny ability to recover from each dispiriting encounter on an upbeat, long-term prospects are not good. Indeed, the film terminates with Isabelle under the thrall of the most corpulent male adventurer of all, whose name, Denis, cannot be entirely haphazard. Denis (Gérard Depardieu) unctuously vacillates in his roles between personal mentor, New Age fortune-teller, and seducer. (Superstition is as good a name as openness, idealism, or even lust for what motivates Isabelle’s interminable romantic cruise.)

Ironically, panning throughout the film on the current emblematic female actress of French cinema, Denis hones into male culture, as she did previously in “Beau travail” (1999), whose social surround is the French Foreign Legion. It is the current culture of males that seduces, misuses, puts off, and discards Isabelle with near-mechanical regularity. It is in this sense that the film “Let the Sunshine In” arises in shared cultural cause with #MeToo. (In context, the title-phrase, corresponding to the film’s handle in English, is a mantra offered to Isabelle by “Denis” at the end of the film. It amounts to a fatuous encomium to sexual release and renewed interpersonal trust, malgré tout.) Subtending #MeToo’s (among others’) initiative to identify, categorize, and prosecute sexual aggressors, stripping them of power and authority where they exercise it, is a culture war of even greater depth, breadth, and implication—even of revolutionary cultural transformation. The radically inhospitable, predatory atmosphere that women and other targets endure in public spaces of all sorts will persist until the underlying subculture perpetuating it has been submitted to sustained, society-wide, public cultural deconstruction. Denis’s “Let the Sunshine In,” in its rogue’s gallery of unsatisfactory resolutions for Isabelle, joins this initiative as it progressively gathers a dossier of untenable bearings, ranging from the overtly hostile to the passive-aggressive, toward its protagonist in her role as contemporary everywoman.

As the film begins, Isabelle is in the midst of a drag-out affair with a married banker, Vincent Briot (Xavier Beauvois), whose business brings him in contact with the art world. There as many “sides” to Vincent’s aggression and thinly veiled sadism toward Isabelle as there are extra folds in his body-fat. Not only does he render a running critique of her performance in bed; he makes certain that she is aware of her exact place in his affections—as an outcropping of a wife that he absolutely “adores” and in relation to his sagrada familia. During one post-coital interlude, Vincent asks Isabelle if her last lover came more readily than he does. We witness Juliette punching her way out of this destructive relationship made in hell fairly early on in the sequence of misadventures; but long enough in to have made us uncomfortable. Among other serious questions regarding Isabelle’s values, mode of conduct, and sense of self-preservation that this relationship poses is what prospects remain open to her in the presumably more frank and “safer” world of unattached mates.

Vincent makes certain, before his relationship with Isabelle completely dissolves, to inform her that her ex, before the marital break-up, had been conducting an affair with her new galleriste, Maxime (Josiane Balasko). Yet even before Isabelle definitively severs the tie to Vincent, she is involved with the generically named l’acteur (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a far svelter figure, visually, a “catch.” Her back-stage visits to l’acteur in rehearsal add patina to a fast-developing situation. Yet if Vincent was all incipient sadism and deep underlying contempt, the folie with l’acteur is all about unresolvable ambivalence, whose arbitrary swings in valence Isabelle cannot begin to anticipate. A spontaneous dinner at a local bistro comes off as delightful in every respect; even here, Isabelle registers that she is talking at cross-purposes to l’acteur. Yet these presumed good vibes are dissolved almost immediately by his professions of mauvaise foi regarding his marital contract and his inability to terminate it. All the juggling in her romantic dance-card does not prevent Isabelle, during these early episodes, from jumping into bed with François, the ex, when he brings Cécile back from a custodial visit.

Some of the few encounters assuring the film of its nonetheless light-handed narrative progression are with an eccentric, Mathieu (Philippe Katerine). These are odd conversations, always when Mathieu and Juliette bump into one another at the local poissonnerie (their dietary regime is fashionably prudent). Mathieu invariably professes his rapt admiration for Isabelle; but he also presses upon her an open invitation to his country estate in the Lot. Such an excursion eventually takes place, once Claire Denis has fully set out the turbulent base-conditions of Isabelle’s socio-sexual milieu. The outing, where Isabelle is joined by other denizens of the Paris art world, not only furnishes a welcome visual change of scene; with the exception of “Denis,” whose coda amounts to an ironic meta-comment applied to Isabelle’s predicament and prospects, this episode splices into the film almost the full cast of remaining characters against whom the protagonist will brush–romantically and sexually—for the duration.

Perhaps the one notable instance when “the sunshine is let in” on Isabelle’s inner workings takes place amid winter light during a group walk along the Lot. Here she emerges as strident, even among her artsy peers. She cries out in wonderment and dismay that the natural beauty could belong to Mathieu, to anyone. This, along with a brief sequence of her starting a new canvas, is the only indication of any privileged rapport to aesthetics.

At Le Souterrain, a late-night joint in the local village, she is joined in her solo dance by Sylvain (Paul Blain), another of the attractive possibilities. This one comports himself as a mystery-man, hovering beyond reach. Another member of the company, Fabrice, a second galleriste, will trash Sylvain to keep Isabelle away from him, but this does not stop her from an inconsequential three-week affair with Sylvain stretching into their return to Paris. And the group visit to the Lot also places Isabelle in contact with Marc, perhaps her most serious prospect as the film winds down. But even though the new acquaintance she has struck with him is promising, back in Paris he takes his leave of her for some weeks pending his setting his affairs in order. When the hip art-scene that Isabelle inhabits is not raining down out and out hostility, mixed with a fraught atmosphere of sexual competition (as between Fabrice and Sylvain over her), what it offers is a cocktail of weak signals, false starts, and intractable situations—all within an culture of arrested development.

Isabelle is very much a creature of her milieu, not above it. Yet what her irrepressible optimism and healthy sexual appetite establish for the film is a gallery of vignettes highlighting the available romantic options. This is a world where marriage still persists, but it has lost much of its viability and credibility in delivering basic services and in eliciting social affirmation and support. With her exceptional beauty and acting, Juliette Binoche sustains the film, but its focus is a series of male portraits: ploys, strategies, and compromises on the current marketplace of sexual interchange; on a mythical level, within the cycle of reproduction. No accident that this kind of social scene could be a breeding ground for abuse of a far graver order.

In her cinematography, Denis has imaginatively embroidered an urban phantasmagoria registering where this coterie conducts its social business. This is in low-lit places, often after hours. These negotiations transpire in an upscale bar where Vincent browbeats a bartender by demanding gluten-free olives; at the bistro where Isabelle and l’acteur share both the delight of new acquaintance and some early misgivings; backstage at the theater; at the subterranean bar in the Lot. These environments merge in a noir montage held together by the ethos of entrapment and desperate experimentation within their boundaries. The subdued lighting and muted tones forgive the characters for the ravages of time they are keen to evade through their squirrely exertions. The beat goes on in sleek cabs during drives through Paris with a sinister twist; it is sometimes only in fleeting rapport to their chauffeurs that these characters have the audacity to be frank.

Denis enlists a figure no less than Gérard Depardieu—not only as her personal namesake, but also to advance some definitive wisdom to Isabelle. In his personal life, Depardieu has achieved recent notoriety for naturalizing himself in Belgium in resistance to French taxation. Also for having been accused of rape by a 23 year-old actress this past August (too recently to have affected his casting in “Let the Sunshine In”). So formidable a personage is the actor/character that in his role as the final arbiter of Isabelle’s predicament, he in effect speaks in the collective voice of French cinema on these matters. Yet “Denis’s” New Age exhortations to mindfulness, flexibility, and calm, given the dead-end matrix of conjugal possibility that Isabelle has negotiated, come over as chimerical mystification. Conditions being what they are, there may well be no ultimate wisdom to tender to Isabelle. Relying on what can only be taken as an ironic resolution to the predicaments that the film has raised only confirms Claire Denis’s vision of a socio-sexual wasteland punctuated by flare-ups of deluded yearning and sporadic relief.

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