It’s a wonderful feeling when great filmmakers stretch their muscles to produce a new work of art that completely upends their oeuvre; the excitement of watching a cinematic gamble and transformation is exhilarating. For years, French director Claire Denis has operated in a reserved mode, depicting tight-lipped, bourgeois characters who seethe with resentment. She has made some excellent films, but a dour sameness has fallen over her work in recent years. Denis’ new film, Bright Sunshine In, subverts those expectations in a joyous burst of invention.
Bright Sunshine In (also known by the less ungainly Let the Sunshine In) is a rare comedy for the director. Juliette Binoche stars as Isabelle, a visual artist living in Paris who has recently left her husband (though his behavior may have prompted the split), and she currently exists in a kind of erotic limbo. She desires emotional and sexual connections with men, but feels a certain impotence when it comes to relationships. She’s been having on-and-off sex with Vincent (Xavier Beauvois, better known as the director of Of Gods and Men), a schlubby creep who’s alternately charming and controlling. He’s also married, and states quite cruelly that he has no intention of leaving his wife for Isabelle.
The film’s greatest comedy comes from Isabelle’s rendezvous with a man only known as The Actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle). At the end of their first meeting, he and Isabelle go back and forth over whether to sleep with each other, each not wanting to be the first to suggest it for fear of sounding overly eager. Despite his insistence on their coupling, the next day he tells Isabelle it was a terrible mistake, before changing his mind again and again. Like Vincent, he’s also married, and the chances of him leaving his wife for Isabelle shrink after every encounter. She is nearly driven mad by The Actor’s hot and cold whims. Into this chaos of competing lovers steps a mysterious man played by Gérard Depardieu, who further shakes up Isabelle’s life (and the entire film). The final scene with him is a hilarious mini-film that more than justifies seeing the picture, and stands as one Denis’ greatest accomplishments.
Bright Sunshine In could easily have focused on the difficulties of reconciling Isabelle’s art with more worldly affairs, but Denis isn’t particularly interested in that — there is only a single scene of Binoche creating in the whole film, although it’s an extraordinary rejection of the standard way painters work in the movies. Because actors usually have no drawing or painting skills, they’re often shown simply sketching along a preexisting line, or shading in some dark mass. It’s a tired shorthand made comical, like seeing an actor flop their hands around when they’re supposed to be playing a piano. Denis breaks with that pattern by actually having Binoche start to create a work of art from scratch. It’s a short scene and not essential to the thrust of the film, but a thrilling challenge to the laziness of other filmmakers.
Rather than focus on potentially weighty subjects, Denis allows Binoche’s interactions with her potential suitors to carry the film. At times, Bright Sunshine In works mostly like a sex comedy, with Isabelle being wedged between various men, none of whom are a good fit for her. But the movie also slides effortlessly into darker territory, like when she has to reckon with the reappearance of her estranged husband.
Denis’ works tend to have a cold yet attractive sheen to them, which preserves the iciness of the characters. Bright Sunshine In is far too light for that treatment, and Denis wisely drops it, instead suffusing the film with a warm glow. Rather than using attention-grabbing camera movements, she adopts a series of extreme close-ups. Most of the characters are engaged in an extended game of charades, obscuring their true feelings for the sake of politeness or sexual gratification. Denis’ close-ups are a kind of cinematic lie detector, exposing characters’ true intentions.
That window into the minds of her characters is why Bright Sunshine In feels so fresh compared to some of Denis’ recent films. Classical Hollywood movies weren’t afraid to have characters say aloud what they were thinking and feeling, and contemporary cinema has found subtler ways to explore inner feelings without being so blunt. Denis took a particularly militant approach to that kind of emotional telegraphing; her characters can sometimes seem like blank blocks of concrete. That approach reached in apotheosis in White Material (2009), in which an extreme act of violence from Isabelle Huppert’s character seems to arise out of nowhere. Bright Sunshine In is a necessary corrective, in which Binoche and the other actors are able to reveal more of their inner lives.
It’s not clear how much of an effect Bright Sunshine In will have on Denis’ future films (her current project is an English-language science fiction film starring Binoche and Robert Pattinson), but it offers a chance to stop and reassess. Even if Denis returns to the darker themes she made her name with, they might be rejuvenated and fresh after the detour. Whether or not it’s a sign of things to come or merely a fascinating experiment, Bright Sunshine In is an essential change for Denis, and a film worth seeking out.