New from Claire Denis, Bright Sunshine In is a pithily precise portrait of the love life of an artist. The problem with Isabelle – Juliette Binoche, getting her teeth deep into the role – isn’t the usual torrid passionate affairs you might expect of her artistic milieu.
Rather, Isabelle seems as much prey to indecisiveness as to all-consuming passion. Perhaps, it’s the case that passion itself is never quite all-consuming enough. In the very first scene, we see her in bed with her banker lover played by director Xavier Beauvois. All seems to be knocking along okay but she becomes increasingly frustrated by her lover’s persistent refusal to climax. The opening scene of Bridesmaids comes to mind, though whether Denis and her co-scenarist Christine Angot had this in mind is unclear.
The wealthy but gauche banker is a bit of a lout and a bully to bartenders and so obviously unworthy of Isabelle, but her other amours are also problematic. There’s a boozy actor who never shuts up about not wanting to talk so much (Nicolas Duvauchelle), as well as her ex-husband (Laurent Grevill) among others. She also has a ten year old daughter who is refreshingly irrelevant and is only glimpsed and not heard, as her father drives her away to his place. Likewise, Isabelle’s art has no bearing on matters and there are no cathartic painting sessions or biographical gallery openings. In fact, other than the banalities of some of the artists’ conversation Denis avoids any tiresome digs at the art world as a whole.
If anything, Isabelle is the female Woody Allen, circa Manhattan perhaps, mithering over her love life, obsessed, cynical and yet romantic and at times hilariously self-sabotaging. She even has a Woody Allen-esque contempt for the countryside. On a rural walk with a small posse of modern artist, she tires of their pretentious babble and lets rip with a tirade against them. Paris, its restaurants and bars, galleries and theatres are her natural stomping ground. Perhaps because here she senses that she is not alone in her emotional travail. Gerard Depardieu is two streets away having an argument with Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi. The sound of relationships ending for no apparent reason can be heard tinkling in the distance.
With its circular dialogue, things can get a bit repetitive and the impatience Isabelle evokes is so well done that it could make the viewer simply exasperated. However, there is a tenderness to Bright Sunshine In and a sympathy which elevates it. Isabelle is assailed not so much by the disappointment of passion as a passion for disappointment. There is a quiet desperation to Isabelle’s search for the perfect one, the perfect travel companion for life’s journey as one character puts it, but she and the film is clever enough and self-aware enough to know that the whole sorry affair is rich in absurdity.