Bright Sunshine In, dir. Claire Denis│When it was announced that Claire Denis’s next film was going to be a comedy, a mixture of excitement and uncertainty was felt among critics. The French director is mostly known for her sensual and often very dark cinema, and while humour does appear throughout her oeuvre, it isn’t really her most obvious trait. “We never thought of it as a comedy!” Denis exclaimed at the Q&A following the premiere of Bright Sunshine In in Cannes. Her co-screenwriter Christine Angot added that it was the subject matter of the film that was inherently humorous: “When you tell anyone about your love life, how you met a certain person, it’s often ridiculous and you know it must be funny to other people, but not to you because it is happening to you!” Denis is again exploring profound and often negative emotions, as she has been doing throughout her career, but here, by tackling the topic of the search for love, she let’s herself be lighter and funnier than usual.
Opening as it does on the naked body of Juliette Binoche in the midst of sexual satisfaction, one could expect Denis to go in the direction of her extremely voluptuous and tender 2002 film Friday Night, about a woman having a one night stand with a stranger before fully committing to her fiancé. In those opening moments, the sweet melodic score, together with the couple’s ability to tell each other what they want during sex, recall the precious mutual understanding of the characters in that earlier film. But Binoche’s character Isabelle is not having such an idyllic time with her lover, who soon criticises her performance and turns her enjoyment into tears. This shift is surprising and surprisingly funny: the man’s bluntness and utter inability to realise how hurtful he has been breaks down the expectation of otherworldly perfect romanticism and sexual fulfilment that these first few shots, and Friday Night, had created in us. Only a few minutes in, and Denis is already delightfully mischievous.
Yet this humour is not a way to fully discredit the sensuality and bliss that Isabelle is feeling in this and many other moments throughout the film. In fact, her violent reaction to her lover’s comment reveals that she truly wants to find happiness and a real connection with a man, and Denis doesn’t deride but rather aligns herself with her character’s sensibility. Agnès Godard’s camera comes close to Isabelle’s back as her lover rubs it forcefully to try and console her: one can’t be sure if his insistence comes from genuine regret or frustration, but Isabelle seems to believe the latter, and doesn’t turn around. The tone shifts again as Isabelle’s mood darkens and the camera isolates her when he leaves her alone. His words, instead of helping them have a clearer contact in the most personal act of connection there is, came in the way and revealed a gap between them. While the woman in Friday Night found an electrifying recognition with a man while barely talking to him, Isabelle is faced with loneliness when she tries to communicate clearly with her lover.
Bright Sunshine In might well be Denis’s wordiest film yet. In her various affairs with men, Isabelle seeks to have both a physical and an emotional rapport, which is why she needs to discuss the terms and conditions of their relationship with them. But words seem to constantly curb everyone’s enthusiasm: they either reveal that the successive men Binoche adores are not as perfect as she had hoped, or they come in the way of her own enjoyment as she starts panicking about her situation. Misunderstandings, distrust or vagueness keep driving Isabelle to despair ridiculously and amusingly, thanks to Christine Angot’s clever writing that nonetheless never humiliates the heroine. Godard’s camera adopts a roving back-and-forth movement when Isabelle talks with a man, resting on the face of people as they react to what they hear or defend themselves vigorously. The space between two people appears electric and constantly in flux, uncertain and fragile, as if each person was threatening its existence with each uttered word. Close-ups on Binoche as she figures out her partner’s sentiments let the fluctuation of her emotions take centre stage and take us on her roller coaster, as she breaks down and bounces back from disappointment. Her search for connection and her impossible conversations with potential candidates bring Bright Sunshine In close to the romantic comedy, except for the fact that all solutions seem elusive and leading only to more sadness and frustration: Denis takes the genre and puts it in her sensual, vivid but difficult world, finding humour in this clash of sensibilities.
Despite this verbosity, the director doesn’t depart from the tactility of her previous films, but rather employs it to show that bright sunshine in Isabelle: in moments of intimacy, Binoche’s body radiates with joy, just as it looks abandoned and desolate when Isabelle’s optimism is clouded. In a spontaneous dance, she begins swaying alone and sadly, until a mute stranger, attracted by her intensity even in sorrow, joins her “at last” as says the song. Her whole being, undisturbed by words or explanations, comes alive in his embrace -recalling Friday Night again. Yet Isabelle’s most expressive attribute might well be her eyes; full of tears or squeezed by a smile, they are always bright and change at the speed of light. Before Isabelle knows it herself, Denis is showing us that through the pain, this woman will always strive for her perfect romance.
Bright Sunshine In wouldn’t be a romantic comedy without a male lead, and Denis finds great pleasure and closes the loop of her film with tenderness by playing with this trope. Gerard Depardieu appears only in the last few minutes -including partly during the end credits- and in a strange form, like the butt of a cute joke. He doesn’t in fact offer Isabelle any clear resolution, but instead, a different outlook on her that has been Denis’s all along – and that the director jokingly seems to suggest could be applied to him too. At last, Isabelle may have found a soul mate, or maybe not. In any case, the ride is worth taking.■
Bright Sunshine In / Un Beau Soleil Intérieur│ Director: Claire Denis│ Screenplay: Christine Angot, Claire Denis│ Camera: Agnès Godard│ Editing: Guy Lecorne│ Music: Stuart Staples│ Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Gerard Depardieu│ Producer: Olivier Delbosc│ Production Company: Curiosa Films│Country: France│ Year: 2017 │ Running Time: 94 min.│ International Sales: Films Distribution│ Festival: Cannes IFF 2017│