Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The new film by Claire Denis, Let the Sunshine In, opens locally this week, at SIFF Film Center. It stars Juliette Binoche as a divorced woman who passes through a series of encounters with men, and while it is elliptical and challenging in the manner of Denis’ other movies, it also glows with some sort of generosity and sneaky humor. And, of course, you get to watch Binoche, doing what looks like emotional improvisation as she navigates one curious episode after another.
The final sequence—it spoils nothing to say that Gerard Depardieu shows up at this point—is a wonderful dialogue that has at least a half-dozen things going on simultaneously. Even the deployment of the end credits here is amusing, as Depardieu just keeps blathering on after they begin rolling. It’s typical of Denis that she includes a sequence with Depardieu’s character just before his scene with Binoche, as though to suggest his human life outside the film’s storyline, and to perhaps remind us that every character in a story has his own motivations and history. To my eye Let the Sunshine In might be just a little thinner than much of Denis’ previous work, but it’s a fascinating project.
Speaking of her previous work, I don’t need to tell you that Scarecrow has a Claire Denis section. It includes her luscious first feature, Chocolat (1988), which bears no relation to the cutesy-wootsy Lasse Hallstrom film of that title starring Binoche.
I list a few others below, with links to my writing about them. And don’t forget about Trouble Every Day (2001), Denis’ shocking vampire picture, or Friday Night (2002), her oddly overlooked account of two people finding each other during a transit strike in Paris. Here’s an excerpt from my Herald review of that film:
Friday Night has little dialogue, no backstory, and only two main characters. We follow Laure on the night before she is set to move in with her boyfriend. She’s on her way to a dinner party, but Paris is in the grip of a crippling transportation strike.
Everyone is in a car, and the cars fill the streets. The movement of this massive traffic jam is glacial. The radio suggests that drivers should pick up passengers, since so many people are stranded without the subway and bus. So it doesn’t seem strange when a man asks for a ride and gets in her car. And there is something about the communication of glances and body language that makes these two people seem destined for a sexual encounter. Very soon.
In synopsis, it sounds like a parody of European art movie. A man, a woman, nonverbal hints, and very pleasant sex at a nearby hotel. But in the hands of Claire Denis it becomes something both realistic (Laure’s car is the kind of just-over-the-hill vehicle with switches that probably don’t work and a permanent cigarette smell) and unreal.
The actors are Valerie Lemercier, who’s known mostly as a comedic actress in France, and the reliable Everyman, Vincent Lindon. There is something just slightly humorous about them, which saves their encounter from being precious.
Movies can be big and complicated, but movies can also be daydreams. Isn’t that why we go to movies sometimes, to daydream about hitting the game-winning home run or running away on a pirate ship? Friday Night could be a daydream on the part of its main character—the kind of story you might idly fantasize about, stuck in a never-ending traffic jam.
Links to my thoughts on other essential Denis films:
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.