Let the Sunshine In is French filmmaker Claire Denis’s one-note ode to the power of love even when, in this case, love stinks like dead fish.
Let the Sunshine In, based on Fragments d’un discours amoureux by Roland Barthes. Directed by Claire Denis. Screening on Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and West Newton Cinema.
By Gerald Peary
I’ve been a longtime admirer of the French filmmaker, Claire Denis, who has given us many arresting features (Chocolat, Trouble Every Day, etc.) and one fabulous masterpiece (Beau Travail). Her latest, Let the Sunshine In, is treated by critics respectfully as one of the good ones. To my mind, we’ve been hit by the worst film ever from Denis, and the most retrograde. It’s a one-note ode to the power of love even when, in this case, love stinks like dead fish. It’s about a middle-aged woman, Michelle (Juliette Binoche), who, divorced and treated odiously by a host of narcissist men, only wants for more. She says without embarrassment that she does nothing at all in her life when she’s not in love.
Certainly her career as a talented painter collapses. There’s an extraordinary scene in which we watch Binoche-as-Michelle expertly stretching out a canvas on a floor and then covering it with abstract brush strokes of thick black á la Jackson Pollock initiating an action painting. But that’s about it for commitment to her career. When her dealer compliments Michelle for being a great painter, it doesn’t register, she’s so obsessed in worrying if her dealer ever had an affair with Michelle’s ex-husband. (He didn’t.)
That dreary former spouse is one of the boorish men who tramples on masochistic Michelle, sleeping with her when he can like old times but for no reason. Then there’s the anguished actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who regales Michelle with his self-pitying soliloquies of his thespian life. He makes love to her once and, though she is smitten, he’s instantly repulsed by what he did. And he’s married. Also married is Michelle’s regular lover, an egotistic banker (Xavier Beavois) who mistreats her with abandon and tells her cruelly that he’ll never leave his wife because his wife is wonderful. Michelle’s reaction to this mistreatment? She confesses to a girlfriend that his being a consummate bastard aids her having orgasms.
It’s not that this weepy dishrag Michelle isn’t worthy of a film about her. The horror is that filmmaker Denis, who earlier this year ridiculed #MeToo and disavowed feminism, believes that her protagonist is actually on the right track, expending everything, including self-respect, looking for love. Even if the men are, Denis would agree, total shits. From a Denis interview about Michelle: “She’s not talking. She’s talking less than the men, I guess. She’s more or less listening to their blah-blah…Her problem is finding what she thinks would be the right guy for her. The one true love she needs.”
Let’s run that by us one more time. Michelle’s solution isn’t to say “Screw” to all these lame guys and seriously paint. It’s to find “the one true love she needs.” Pretty Woman comes to Paris. Oh how did my fellow critics fall for this fluffy, also formally messy movie? Is it because the great Juliette Binoche always wins them over? I take some solace that, in this case, “the people” weren’t fooled: a lowly 24% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Gerald Peary is a retired film studies professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.