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Juliette Binoche Lights the Torch for Older Women in 'Let the Sunshine In'

Updated: Mar 23

Rhoyce Nova sheds some light on Juliette Binoche's luminous turn as an older woman questing for love and passion in Clair Denis' Let the Sunshine In, as part of her series on French film actresses.

Mature-aged Isabelle is an esteemed Parisian painter who, post-divorce, yearns for authentic romantic connection. Isabelle's journey is marked by a deep sense of desire, with equal measures of susceptibility and fortitude, as she encounters a string of men who fail to fulfil her needs.

The creative collaboration of Let the Sunshine In (2017), is a French, female, tour-de-force. Directed by pre-eminent French auteur, Claire Denis, the film stars a fervid Juliette Binoche, with cinematography from Denis' long-time lens-woman, César award-winning, Agnès Godard. Inspired by Roland Barthes' book, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, Denis co-wrote the screenplay with the infamous doyen of autofiction, Christine Angot. Masculine interludes are provided by Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Paul Blain, Alex Descas, and Gérard Depardieu.

Binoche received César and Lumière nominations for her performance as Isabelle, a divorcée thirsty for love and intimacy. Isabelle's hunt for a man to fulfil her needs preoccupies her every waking thought to the exclusion of her work and even her ten-year-old daughter, Cecile. For Isabelle, the path to true love lies in sex. Throughout the narrative, she offers up her body to men who are only vaguely interested in her, and to whom she's only partially attracted, in the hope that it will lead to a more soulful and lasting passion.

The tale, told unapologetically and non-judgementally by Denis, is at once deeply hopeful and, at times, borderline pitiful. Against the theme song, At Last (my love has come along) by Etta James, Isabelle approaches each new liaison with an almost virginal optimism, only for her hopes to be dashed, either by the man in question or by her own lack of clarity over what she is seeking. This rollercoaster of emotion is exquisitely etched in every nuance of Binoche's face, with Godard's up-close camera work forging a relationship of paramount intimacy that surpasses any moment with her man friends.

Hopes are not high for Isabelle's quest as the film careens from almost tragic to verging on comical. The opening sex scene with Xavier Beauvois' portly Vincent shows what can only be described as them 'humping'. She berates him to "cum" to get it over with, then cries afterwards when he asks for a sexual comparison report card. The message is clear. She wants connection, he wants a performance appraisal. It is a scene entirely devoid of romance and one most every heterosexual woman is familiar with. The factual, almost documentarian, style in which the sex scene is rendered signals Denis' utter refusal to romanticise sex.

As the narrative progresses, the viewer is struck by the different ways in which intimacy is portrayed at the hands of a female director. This is sex told from a female point of view, something rarely seen inside the Hollywood machine. Every man is the hero of the moment in his own mind in the carefully orchestrated machinations of Hollywood sex scenes. In Denis' films, the men are clumsy, selfish, and insecure and most decidedly lacking. The European sexual sensibility, too, is different. Even Vincent, Isabelle's opening oaf, attempts to comfort her with a ham-fist when she is crying. In a Hollywood film, we rarely see the tears, let alone the awkward attempts at consolation.

Binoche's face, too, is a revelation. Teetering on the edge of what Hollywood would deem as 'still-got-it', as opposed to 'over-the-hill', her largely unadorned and plastic-surgery-free face becomes an act of defiance. Her crows-feet crinkle in their freedom and her every smile line sparkles with liberation. Crucially, when we see a mature face such as Binoche's shown in such a warm embrace, we unshackle beauty and desirability from their Hollywood-imposed straitjackets. One can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from every woman over forty.

This is undoubtedly Binoche's finest performance and Denis' friendliest and most verbal film. Denis' style can often be somewhat distant and devoid of dialogue, but in Let the Sunshine In, she gets up close and personal, with a multitude of close-ups and a preponderance of lingering shots. In choosing to show a warts-and-all depiction of a mature woman's search for love, Denis sidesteps Hollywood tropes to the film's completion. Whereas a Hollywood film would portray either a traditional happy ending or a 'she's happy on her own' female empowerment arc, Denis' narrative has the character pursuing true passion to the end.

Isabelle is unswerving and unapologetic in her desire for love and, although her quest for love remains unresolved as the credits roll, a final, hefty cameo from Gérard Depardieu suggests there may be hope in her future yet. While the storyline does run dangerously close to the 'I can't be happy without a man' trope, the decision to have the lead character still questing for love is crucial in this film. This is because society, and Hollywood, would have us believe that a woman of a certain age may lay no claim to love and passion. To love a mature woman just may be the greatest forbidden love of all, if the Hollywood narrative is to be believed. In this respect, Let the Sunshine In lights the torch for every mature woman, and every person who loves to love them.



1 Comment

Susan Lewington
Susan Lewington
Nov 20, 2023

Damn, you’re good Rhoyce!

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