Romantic comedies are tough to get right. It takes skill to craft a film with charming protagonists, romantic chemistry, witty dialogue and cracking one-liners. When done to perfection, there is very few genres that elicit a similar type of involvement and joy within a viewer. It’s for that reason that I get irked when smart-arses criticise the work of Richard Curtis. The Notting Hill writer makes rom-coms look easy, something they are not.
For an example of a very talented filmmaker getting stymied by the genre, Let the Sunshine In proves fascinating in its flaws. Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day, Bastards) – someone typically associated with darker, more realist fare – directs Juliette Binoche in this odd take on romantic conventions. Binoche stars as Isabelle, a middle-aged divorcee and bourgeois artist. The movie is comprised of kaleidoscopic vignettes regarding her relationships with various men: an arrogant banker (Xavier Beauvois), a handsome but moody stage actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle – Braquo), a kind and gentle fellow artist (Denis regular Alex Descas) and a mysterious dancer to whom she shares an immediate connection (Paul Blain).
On the positive front, I cannot think of a director as good as Denis when it comes to portraying sensuality and touch. A character at one point in Sunshine states: “Country forests? … I prefer to watch people”. This could be Denis’ mantra as in her films, dialogue and plot are not what tell the story. It’s the way her character’s bodies move, the way people gaze upon each other or embrace. That is what tells the viewer all they need to know. The best scenes in Let the Sunshine In involve the unspoken; the close-up on Isabelle’s face as she becomes enraptured in her actor boyfriend’s tale of woe or how palpable the sexual chemistry is when the night eventually ends in passion.
Yet, Denis is on less solid ground in terms of dialogue. Much of the film is comprised of wordy conversations which feel at best like they are touching upon some universal truths or at their worst like the more oblique eye-rolling moments in Cormac McCarthy’s The Counsellor script, but either way, not like any person has ever spoken. There’s a scene in which Binoche delivers a long monologue – strange giving the fact she’s talking to a friend – where she flip-flops between ecstatic happiness and tearful sobbing. The dialogue delivered would be better suited for a particularly absurd Yorgos Lanthimos joint than a sexy French romantic drama/comedy.
It doesn’t help that Denis stages some of the big moments of her film awkwardly. A potentially iconic moment in which Binoche dances to Etta James’ At Last at a retreat for artists is spoiled by the way Denis frames the mysterious Paul Blain character approaching the central character. As Isabelle dances the stranger enters the frame looking emotionless, slowly creeping up behind her. It feels like a parody out of the I.T Crowd or Flight of the Conchords about a liberated woman having her moment of power spoiled by a creepy man. However, it suddenly changes abruptly into what I think the director intends to be a romantic scene when Isabelle turns equally gropey – a scene that raised some awkward titters at my screening.
Also strange is that despite many reviewers dubbing the film a rom-com, very few of the jokes have anything to do with the story. An example early on has the potential for some laughs; Isabelle learns her new boss may have slept with her ex-husband. Within five minutes, she freaks out and then in a protracted scene asks her manager whether it’s true. She says no, laughing it off and its never mentioned again. Similarly, a scene in which Isabelle lashes out at her bourgeois colleagues for their pretentious attitude to nature doesn’t really impact on the narrative in any way and in fact feels tonally awkward with the endless philosophising on love and the carnal sex scenes.
It’s strange to say it but the funniest joke in the film is one aimed at the audience. In the final scene Isabelle goes to see a new age therapist for relationship advice, played by Gerard Depardieu. He too, however, has recently been left single and refuses to tell her which lover out of the four she’s been with in the movie to commit to. As the credits roll, the scene just goes on-and-on, concluding with Depardieu giving his patient heavy hints she should be dating him. The scene is eccentric, droll and weird. Pity Denis saved this inventiveness for the end credits. A commitment to a tone such as this may have made Let the Sunshine In feel less like a jumble of disparate elements and more like a coherent statement on dating and love.