Every Claire Denis film offers something new – whether in terms of narrative structure, narration, representations of characters, places or social issues. Let the Sunshine In, which screened at Cannes last year, was ‘slipped in’ between other projects. I’m drawing here on an interview in the English language Press Pack for the film. Denis and her usual collaborator, the cinematographer Agnès Godard, worked on a short text by screenwriter Christine Angot, that Denis had seen ‘read’ by actors she knew, to produce a 45 minute film during a year-long workshop at the Fresnoy National Studio of the Arts. When Denis was then asked by producer Olivier Delbosc if she would become one of a group of directors making a compendium film based on Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, she remembered the short film and contacted Angot. They decided to make their own feature, ditching all of Barthes except for the word and the concept of ‘Agony’. They must have made an impressive pitch because Delbosc agreed to produce their film.
Denis and Angot decided to draw on their own experiences in creating the film (so some of the men are played by fellow directors), but they knew that they needed a unique actor to perform the central role of the woman who searches for but never quite finds love.
. . . we realised it had to be Juliette. Juliette Binoche stood out to us as the ideal vessel for the role of Isabelle. The screenplay called for a creamy, voluptuous and desirable feminine body: a woman whose face and body are beautiful, and whose demeanour in no way conveys defeat. Someone for whom in love battles, victory is still possible, without, however, ever assuming that the outcome is certain.
There is a tease here, naming this character ‘Isabelle’ and it’s fun to ponder how different the film would be with Huppert (riveting lead performer in White Material for Denis) rather than Binoche. But this character is definitely Binoche presented exactly as Denis described. Denis also chose very specific costumes for her such as the mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, the leather jacket and deep V-neck tops. Juliette Binoche looks stunning and as Ginette Vincendeau comments in Sight and Sound, May 2018, “she is, as ever, a major reason to see the film”. So too is the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu at the end of the film. But, apart from La Binoche and Le Depardieu, does the rest of it make any sense? A quick glance at IMDb will reveal quite a few 1/10s and “Worst film ever” comments.
Isabelle is an attractive artist in her 50s, estranged from her husband François (but not averse to the occasional tumble with him) and seemingly not too concerned that her 10 year-old daughter stays mainly with her father. When we first meet Isabelle, she’s in bed with a banker and later she beds a younger actor and then, on a trip to an arts festival, a man she meets in a bar. She flirts with others and may yet end up with the gargantuan Depardieu whose ridiculous patter as a mystic is clearly designed to entice her (though she may well yet end up with the one of the few charming men in the film, played by Denis regular Alex Descas). I’ve just outlined the entire plot.
The point of the film, presumably, is to be found in these various encounters and what they tell us about how Isabelle seeks her idea of love. This search certainly does seem to create ‘agony’ for Isabelle and possibly for us. Like many Denis films Let the Sunshine In refuses easy identification as a specific genre film or even a mix of genres. A renowned French critic like Ginette Vincendeau is reduced to wondering if it is a kind of romantic comedy or ‘woman’s picture’. Vincendeau takes a wrong turn, I think, by querying the lack of elements of social realism (Isabelle’s lack of concern about her daughter, only the briefest glimpse of her working life as an artist) and concludes that the film ‘s location work, which she takes to be a nod towards the original New Wave auteur productions on the streets of Paris, seems to unconsciously juxtapose the obsessions of the wealthy with the everyday lives of the mass of Parisians. I do agree with Ginette Vincendeau that there doesn’t seem to be a feminist agenda in this work by a quartet of experienced and accomplished women in French cinema (director, writer, cinematographer and star). Isabelle has only two meaningful discussions with other women and in both cases it’s about men so there is no chance the film will pas the Bechdel test. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. The whole #MeToo campaign has tended to fare less well in France where many powerful women in film and TV tend to react against easy assumptions of what it means to be a feminist. On the other hand, I would argue that there are more women in leading creative roles, especially as directors in France. I can’t see Claire Denis ever taking any shit from anyone.
Vincendeau argues the film isn’t a romcom (but could the rare sub-genre of the ‘intellectual romcom). She also comments that if it is any way a ‘woman’s film’, it’s a very French version of such a film. At times I did shake my head and wonder what was going on, but I also laughed out loud a few times and behind me in the cinema were female laughs that were much louder. The lack of realism or of conventional motivation for action didn’t bother me too much once I’d realised it wasn’t necessarily meant to feature. I think you could argue that the film is a satire on an echelon of men in the Parisian arts community (and the business community) – and its also a critical look at Isabelle herself. In a key sequence Isabelle is berated by a gallerist for taking up with a man who is not from her mileu – he’s too working-class (I must have missed the clues to his class position). What Isabelle does next is unforgivable – but perhaps it is honest? Two scenes involve similar exchanges between characters in which they skirt round the central thing they want to say. It becomes so annoying that you want to march onto the set and give them a slap. Just get on with it! But again, this is what conversations are often like. The script is mainly dialogue and it’s very clever.
When Alex Descas appeared, late in the film, my heart lifted. Two scenes that followed linked via Descas to the Denis film in which he was a lead actor, 35 rhums (France 2008). At one point a long shot show Isabelle close to a major Paris station with its many railtracks and in another she dances in a bar to the fabulous Etta James singing ‘At Last’. Again, I’m not sure what to make of this but I’m sure other Denis-watchers will have noted them.
I f you are wondering about the title and the way it is translated literally on prints for English-language audiences as in the poster above, it comes from the Depardieu speech at the end of the film. He urges Isabelle to ‘open’ (and uses the English world). I think he then uses the (French) title with the meaning that she will open herself to a sunlit interior. I may have got that wrong because Denis decided on a strange strategy in which the credits rolled down the right side of the screen as Depardieu gave his long mesmeric speech in close-up. Reading the credits and the subtitles and trying to focus on that enormous head and shoulders was virtually impossible. Nice font though and by the way the film is presented in 1.66:1, giving more emphasis to the talking heads. I should watch this film again. I rarely ‘get’ a Claire Denis film first time round. Here’s a clip from the film:
This is a riveting 80-something minutes of bravura filmmaking best seen on a big screen in a good-sized cinema (go here to find current bookings across the UK – often single screenings). It’s set in rural Iceland with sea, mountains and rough pasture and accompanied by a terrific soundtrack (including Icelandic choir performances). Described as ‘Comedy-Drama’ by the distributor, the humour is actually very dark. When I was going into the cinema I overheard an argument at the box office when someone couldn’t understand why the cinema would not admit her child (aged under 15). I suspect that the film would be very upsetting for most children – this isn’t a ‘horsey romance’.
There is no strong narrative as such. Instead we get a number of shorter narratives, mostly tragic with elements of comedy, involving the small farmers on the plain. The farmers all in some way live with/by the wild horses of the region, each year rounding up a number of them and breaking them for leisure or commerce of some kind. There is something of a documentary feel to the narrative structure in the way that the stories lead towards the big summer round-up. The community is quite ‘close’ in proximity but individuals are also competitive/jealous/promiscuous etc. The film’s English title (not a direct translation) misses out ‘women’, at least two of whom are also important narrative agents.
I was trying to think of another film that had a similar tone and I began to think of the Basque film Vacas (Cows) made by Julio Medem in 1992. A tight-knit community in a very specific locale with a strong local culture and some almost surreal local practices. At one point, when the various widows/divorcées are angered that one of their number has got her teeth into the most eligible male by teaming up with him during the horse round-up, the other women suggest that there should be more than two people doing the job taken by the couple. “It’s been a two-person job for a thousand years” retorts an older man.
Of Horses and Men is a début film for writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson and as such it is a staggering achievement, winning several international prizes as well as cleaning up at the Icelandic ‘Edda’ awards. One of the roles is played by the Icelandic actor who is best known by international audiences, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, and I recognised at least one other actor from Jar City (2006), the last Icelandic film to get a significant release in the UK. Most of the stories have surprising twists which I don’t want to give away but I was intrigued by the reference to a famous sequence from Jan Troell’s The New Land (Sweden 1972) (what to do when you and your horse/ox etc. are caught in a snowstorm). The relatively few Icelandic films I’ve seen have all had ‘noirish’ features. The short film Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) shares the dark tone and appears to have been shot in a similar location.
I enjoyed the film very much, but I turned away from the screen a couple of times since I’m squeamish about many forms of violence or medical procedure. Will the film please horse-lovers? I don’t know, but I think they will appreciate the representation of the horses (beautifully photographed) and the realism of certain scenes. Be warned, however, that the film ends with the message that all those taking part in the film are horse lovers and that “no horses were harmed during the making of the film”. Some pretty good CGI or VFX then, I think!