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CLAIRE DENIS: LET THE SUNSHINE IN/UN BEAU SOLEIL INTÉRIEUR (2017) - NYFF (PARIS)

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JULIETTE BINOCHE IN LE THE SUNSHINE IN/UN BEAU SOLEIL INTÉRIEUR

Sad comedy of an older woman seeking love

Though she somewhat returns to the obsessive female love territory of her 2002 Friday Night, French master Claire Denis takes a different tack from more serious films like Beau Travail (1999), White Material (2009) and 35 Shots of Rum (2008) in this new film, whose lead is masterfully possessed by Juliette Binoche. Un beau soleil intérieur follows a 50-something woman - a very beautiful one, obviously - in her "search for love" with various men. It's a tragicomic series of misadventures, delineated by many sexy intimate closeups by regular dp Agnès Godard, but also by comically clumsy meandering dialogue that dramatizes the fumbling search and gently satirizes the comic war, or dance, of the sexes. And for this unusual, highly verbal, aspect of the film, Denis has collaborated with novelist and playwright Christine Angot, who has provided many of the devastatingly silly, or cruel, lines. And Isabelle (Binoche's character) is silliest of all, witness her long final session with a fortune teller (Gérard Depardieu). As many have noted, this is both Denis' most lighthearted film (despite its sad side) and her talkiest.

That ending says this: Isabelle has no idea how to choose a man, and she has not found an appropriate one. But she's still ripe for the game, and playing it requires doses of cockeyed optimism. Depardieu's seer hasn't a clue, and neither has Isabelle, and so the plotline isn't really quite leading anywhere, neither plumping for nor quite rejecting any of the unsuccessful mates - which is, after all, rather kind to men in general, offering some sympathy for even the worst of them. It begins with a stuckup banker, Vincent (the very smooth, subtly repulsive Xavier Beauvois), in the first, most realistic sex sequence, which ends with neither of them satisfied. Then she spends an evening with a married, self-absorbed young actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle, very cool and sexy), and she is tremendously excited by the idea of him. At her place, he is recalcitrant. He asks for a drink, then when offered it, wants to leave. Se coaxes him back, and he stays. Next morning he explicitly wishes it hadn't happened, insisting he preferred the "before." The rapport is ruined, if there ever was any, and yet the nature of the danger is that the attraction still hovers on both sides, nudged by the stuttering talk.

She goes to bed with her ex-husband - who tells her their ten-year-old daughter says that when she's with her, Isabelle cries every night, and that's bad for her - while Isabelle is turned off by something he does in sex that she finds false and artificial, so that encounter gets cut abruptly short, a pretext perhaps. Several other men follow, one a sympathetic artist colleague (Bruno Podalydès); another a beautiful, sad-faced stranger (Paul Blain) with whom she has a lovely dance to Etta James' song, "At Last." Is that the best it can ever be, an iconic torch song and a swoony dance with a stranger? Or does this only symbolize cinema's inability to capture love in anything but iconic images?

Binoche is wonderful through all this, sympathetic, needy yet never pathetic, occasionally looking almost her age perhaps, but frequently having moments of happiness, hope, or desire where she glows and radiates like the prettiest of twenty-somethings. She is something, and she never seems to be straining. It's all completely natural, possessed, from within, a career best performance and a triumph for the reputation and promise of that under-appreciated group, actresses of a certain age.

What these connections all have in common is that none of them is quite right, and that they often contain random droll moments of pretension, misapprehension or malapropism. LIfe is alarmingly frustrating and silly. And yet the point is, that in spite of that, the urge is still always there. Throughout, Denis asserts her style and mastery by the rhythm she gives the scenes and the way she transitions from one to the next; by the extraordinary subtle, flickering balance between the sad and the droll. She has faced danger and transformation in films like Beau Travail or The Intruder and here, she's not moving toward some rom-com plotline resolution. This is underlined in an original fashion by the ending session, over closing credits, with the kooky, meandering "seer," Depardieu fluently improvising, riffing, inventive nonsensical bullshit about Isabelle's men and her futures with them, all of whom he sees as positive - or perhaps not. Nothing is certain, and nothing is concluded. And that's bravely life-affirming.

Let the Sun Shine In/Un beau soleil intérieur, 94 mins., debuted at Cannes 18 May 2017 in Directors Fortnight, opening in France 27 Sept., AlloCiné press rating only a good 3.5. but top marks from Cahiers, Les Inrocks, Libération and Humanité. in at least 26 international festivals including Toronto, New York and London. Watched 29 Oct. 2017 in Paris at Cinéma Le 3 Luxembourg.

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