Claire Denis’s latest film Un Beau Soleil Interieur (Let the Sun Shine In) makes the almost unbelievable proposal that Juliette Binoche just cannot find a halfway decent man in all of France. I mean, if she can’t, then there is no hope for anyone else. But this concept runs throughout the film, as Isabelle (Binoche) drifts in and out of relationships with a multitude of sub-par men, from the outright boorish to the inept and childish. The question becomes: are all men in France terrible, or is Isabelle just attracted to terrible men?
And the answer is: both. I’m being facetious, because Un Beau Soleil Interieur is a truly beautiful and realistic film that evades taking itself too seriously while speaking legitimate truths about the female condition. Isabelle attempts to navigate a series of relationships that fill her with a desperation to love, to be loved, and, more nebulously, to be satisfied. The film opens with one of her lovers actually asking (in the midst of rather dull love-making) if it always takes her this long to come. A gross question, to be sure, but one that hits at the heart of this film, which makes Isabelle’s dissatisfaction with all her relationships into an intriguing and multifaceted plot. While she sleeps with a number of men, the most intimate, sensual moments don’t involve sex at all. What Isabelle craves, and what she cannot find but in fleeting instances, is human connection. A brush of the hands, a quick kiss, an embrace, an intimate dance hold more weight for her than do the more mechanical and distant sex scenes.
There is also a healthy dose of humor mixed in to Isabelle’s dissatisfying existence. Her boorish lover Vincent (Xavier Beauvois) is so precise that he instructs the bartender exactly how to serve him whisky and soda, while another lover goes through all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid committing to her. The humor is rarely at the expense of Isabelle, though -the men are almost uniformly ridiculous, attempting to justify themselves and their relationship with her by philosophy, by moralism, by didactic explanations of her life and her needs that she does not apparently share. Much of Isabelle’s discomfort is because she takes these things to heart, listening to men who either want something from her or want to avoid giving her something. She’s an everywoman, in that sense, angry but also internalizing what is being said by men around her. As they attempt to narrate themselves into her life or form her according to their needs and desires, she becomes unmoored, further removed from herself and her own desires.
Binoche once again proves that she’s one of the finest actresses working today, drawing out the comedy of her character’s situation without sacrificing emotional honesty or making Isabelle ridiculous. There is something refreshing in seeing an actress, and a film, unafraid to show women as they actually are, without histrionics or fabricated drama. Binoche’s co-stars are a shifting roster of terrible men, all of them terrible in their own ways, and all acquitting themselves admirably in their roles (though none stick around for long). The center is always her, bright, desperate, and relatable, longing for love and sabotaging herself in the process.
The final scene of the film indicates a potential future for Isabelle as she extricates herself from some of her more damaging relationships and seeks out happiness within herself. My French is a tad rusty, but I’m fairly positive that “un beau soleil interieur” actually translates to “a beautiful sun within/inside.” This has some significance in light of the way the phrase is used within the film, nearing the end. It acts as an admonition that Isabelle find some kind of sunlight within herself, rather than basking in the reflected glow of other people. But because of who utters it, and in what context, it can be read as another masculine attempt to rewrite Isabelle into his own narrative, to inject his opinions, and himself, into her life. At the same time, Isabelle finally begins to smile, aware of what is happening but also taking the advice to heart. It’s humorous, hopeful, and ambiguous ending.
Un Beau Soleil Interieur will likely be a minor film at NYFF this year, for it has no grandiose performances or “important” statements about the world. It’s a slice of one woman’s life, intensely personal and individual while also speaking truths about modern human relationships. It’s the best kind of art there is: personal and universal.
Un Beau Soleil Interieur (Let the Sun Shine In) is now showing at NYFF 2017.