Finding romance as one gets older doesn’t come easily. Such is the plight of Isabelle, the heroine of Claire Denis’ Un Beau soleil intérieur, wretchedly mistranslated as Let the Sunshine In in its American release. Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a successful, middle-aged painter, is divorced from a fellow artist, who has custody (it isn’t explained why) of their ten-year-old daughter. She lives alone in a Parisian flat, and we meet her in the midst of being humped—no politer word will do—by her sometime lover, a banker named Vincent (Xavier Beauvois). He’s immediately unlikable, and soon grows insufferable. After what we can infer is his umpteenth act of insult, Isabelle shows him the door, and we settle down to await the arrival of Mr. Right. He doesn’t show up, though, as Isabelle works her way through a rogue’s gallery of contemporary misfits.
Exhibit A is an unnamed actor (Nicolas Buvauchelle) a good deal younger than Isabelle, a maddening egoist who seems the male version of the classic female tease. Now he wants it, now he doesn’t, and when he finally gives it up (“Merveilleuse,” Isabelle murmurs to herself), he ends the evening by saying the whole thing should never have happened.
It doesn’t get any better. Isabelle meets Sylvain (Paul Blain) on a dance floor; neither says a word to the other, but chemistry kicks in at once. Sylvain, though, is a proletarian at the bottom of Isabelle’s world—a museum guard—and the difference of class and education sours things for her, although in one otherwise unmotivated scene she turns on colleagues on a country excursion to denounce them for being, apparently, bourgeois. That’s how we know, see, that she isn’t just being a snob.
Isabelle’s career, meanwhile, is chiefly represented by a scene in which she spreads a canvas on her studio floor and starts swabbing black paint over it. This, she says, is her “life,” but she seems to take extraordinarily little satisfaction from it. What really fills her world is the desperate fear of being alone, and it is that which constitutes such character as she has for us. Even when she is welcomed by a new gallery owner who assures her of her genius, she is consumed by jealousy at the (apparently false) news that her ex-husband (Laurent Grévill) has had an affair with her.
Things get bad enough that Isabelle goes back for a night to her ex. That doesn’t work out either, and he chides her for emotionally damaging their daughter with her teary funks. A final candidate appears, Marc (Alex Descas), a colleague whose hand she takes on a walk, but who puts off anything further by saying that he, too, needs to think about it. Paris, it seems, really isn’t for lovers anymore.
The film’s penultimate scene shows a couple in a parked car—the first and only scene without Isabelle in it—whose male occupant is telling his female companion that (what else?) he doesn’t think he’ll be seeing her anymore. The face is shadowy, but it reappears in the next scene as the highly recognizable one of Gérard Depardieu, who plays the love psychic that Isabelle, presumably at her wits’ end, has gone to consult. Depardieu, his battered features in relentless closeup, natters endlessly about the need to remain “open,” as if Isabelle weren’t all but wearing a sign around her neck advertising that she is. He’s still going on when the film credits go up around him—apparently, the only thing that could bring this pointless merry-go-round to a stop.
Let the Sunshine In comes with a Cannes award and a slew of admiring reviews, topped off by A. O. Scott’s description of its director as “consistently the most interesting French filmmaker of the twenty-first century.” I can only give the unwary viewer such warning as I can, including the reaction of the audience I sat with when, realizing Depardieu’s grift, it burst into laughter. What can’t be funny in any sense, though, is the abuse of Juliette Binoche’s great talents. She hangs in there gamely for an hour and a half that passes as if it were three (and Gérard Depardieu, for all we know, may be monologuing still), giving a hopeless role her all, and somehow ringing such subtle changes as she can on the six inches of character she’s given to play. If there’s a César for best performance—attempted performance, anyway—in an awful film, she wins it hands down.
The French used to do romance about as well as it can be done. The absence of romance in our anomic modern society would be a theme, too. But the sheer puerility of behavior exhibited in Sunshine makes you wonder whether all the adults haven’t simply left the room.