Film review | Bright Sunshine In: A lover’s discourse, ad nauseam...

Bright Sunshine In is the kind of film you get when an acclaimed and talented filmmaker and an acclaimed and talented actress get together on a project... and the magic that’s meant to follow simply doesn’t happen • 2/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
4 July 2017, 7:30am
Juliette Binoche’s game and sensitive performance cannot quite ready this artsy rom-com for takeoff
Juliette Binoche’s game and sensitive performance cannot quite ready this artsy rom-com for takeoff
Acclaimed French filmmaker Claire Denis had the long-distance privilege of closing this year’s edition of the Valletta Film Festival – the third event in the series, which once again proved that this independently-run event is one of the true highlights of Maltese cultural life in summer, offering as it does an eclectic selection of international cinema that would otherwise have not made it to our shores. 

It’s a pity, then, that it had to go off on something of a damp squib such as this, since ‘Un beau soleil intérieur’ (Bright Sunshine In) is a dream team pairing of actress and director that never quite manages to take off. 

An artist separated from the father of her child, Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is determined to finally find true love. But as her romantic pairings pile up along with her disappointments, she grows increasingly desperate about what her next move should be... or whether she should just proceed as normal.

In theory, the film should work like a charm – a French charm, no less. Yes, it may have very little in the way of plot, being made up of just a series of ultimately fruitless romantic encounters. But the powerhouse talent on which the entire project is built – neither Denis nor Binoche are to be sniffed at, by any stretch of the critical imagination – would work its way to assure that these encounters are in fact enlightening slices of life, leavening the repetitive and unsatisfying nature of Isabelle’s doomed love life with wit, humour, and hard-won wisdom. Right? 

Well, sometimes it works that way, like her on-off relationship with an actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who is delicate but – fatally – just as indecisive as Isabelle herself. Or her blackly humorous encounters with the louche banker Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), who is always game for Isabelle’s carnal affections but says he will never go as far as leave his wife for her: “You are charming, but my wife is extraordinary”. 

Dream team? Actress Juliette Binoche and director Claire Denis
Dream team? Actress Juliette Binoche and director Claire Denis
And Binoche certainly pulls her weight like a champ, offering rich glimpses into her conflicted psyche with minor changes of facial expression, with the very frequent extreme close-ups only emphasising the effort required. 

But none of this can mask that the film has no real tempo. It promises charm – perhaps the same pre-packaged ‘French’ charm made fun of by Vincent the Banker – but all it delivers is a mix of doodles that work as vignettes but never quite add up to a coherent whole.

What’s frustrating is that there’s potential in the sum of its parts. Though the film was apparently conceived as a cinematic reimagining of key chapters from cultural critic Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse, the script – penned by Christine Angot and Jean-Pol Fargeau – made me think of yet another masterpiece of modern European literature: Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller. Though it has none of the genre-hopping pizazz of that work, Isabelle’s repeated frustrations with her lovers bring to mind the way Calvino manipulates his readers’ expectations at each individual chapter, only to delay the erotic encounter that is meant to follow. But while it would be unfair – and even rather silly and reductive – to ask for a neat resolution or satisfying emotional beats we can clap our hands to, Denis never quite succeeds in giving a spring to the story’s step – preferring to remain in a neutral, flat morass. There are, of course, many valid points that the film makes about women ‘of a certain age’ navigating the pitfalls of dating in their dotage, but presented in this episodic way, it simply does not engage.

Bright Sunshine In is the kind of film you get when an acclaimed and talented filmmaker and an acclaimed and talented actress get together on a project... and the magic that’s meant to follow simply doesn’t happen. Although peppered with inspired moments and just about held together by Denis’ assured, tasteful way with the camera and Binoche’s always on-point performance, this doodle simply doesn’t have the power to go the long haul.

Bright Sunshine In was the closing film at this year’s edition of the Valletta Film Festival

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...