Claire Denis's Let the Sunshine In charts the delightfully erratic dalliances and social sparring of a romantically wayward painter, Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), with the many men she encounters in her life (played by, among others, Xavier Beauvois, Alex Descas, and Gérard Depardieu). The film will receive its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival. After premiering in the Directors' Fortnight section of the 70th Cannes Film Festival, we had a chance to sit down and discuss the new film with its director. The "Christine" that Denis speaks of is Christine Angot, her co-screenwriter and a notable French novelist and playwright.
NOTEBOOK: So Bright Sunshine In is your first comedy—it’s a sex comedy and it’s often a very funny film. But what struck me about it was how closely linked the humor and the sadness are. Could you talk about how you balanced that mix of tones or how you achieved that?
CLAIRE DENIS: It was not very difficult because in that field, looking for true love, it’s sometimes funny or ridiculous and a lot of times very sad. So the balance was there immediately when we started writing the script. I remember I told Christine [Angot], “You know what. Let’s call the film Agony.” But for me, it was an inside title: Agony. The agony of love. And yet, thanks to the words of Christine… I thought maybe: “Let's film the world frankly with their nonsense.” It also becomes funny.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a harshness to it, but there’s also a lot of tenderness. And it’s all just there.
DENIS: And frankness.
NOTEBOOK: This film is quite a departure from your other work. Bastards was in Un Certain Regard before, and that film is quite bleak. Did you want to do a comedy afterwards?
DENIS: Not at all, no. I was preparing another film and we were delayed. And this producer asked: “Did you want to do a film in-between?” And I asked Christine to work with me because we had worked together before. It was like [snaps fingers] a short jump, not against Les salauds [Bastards] in any way. I don’t fight against my films. Sometimes I think they are not as good as I wish, but they are there. There must be a reason.
NOTEBOOK: It was just very different in the sense that your previous films are more elliptical and sensual, whereas this seems more dialogue-driven.
DENIS: The line I told Christine was: “We don’t have much time. We don’t have much of a budget. Let’s film your words.” I had already done a film with Christine before, a short film. The word is going to be our space, our location, and Juliette [Binoche] as Isabelle would be our master of ceremony. So it was not like changing completely. I think I am the very same person. I think Juliette brought a lot of joy to the film, for sure.
NOTEBOOK: She really is the center out of which you build the film. She has all these different men circling around her in different ways. What I found interesting was how you build this film up from these small interactions, these small moments, kind of like the paintings at the gallery—the giant grid. How did you approach the structure of the film?
DENIS: Block by block. We knew we would start with the love scene. And we knew it would end with… How do you call it, the spirit?
NOTEBOOK: The medium?
DENIS: Yes, the medium. We were building block by block. We were telling the story block by block. Not trying to tell it continuously like “a month later” or “two days after.” It was block by block, and in the end we realized it created a sort of continuity with the character.
NOTEBOOK: So it was more intuitive, the way you structured it?
DENIS: I’m not American, so the word “structure”... Me, I’m always intuitive with my structure. It’s transitory. It’s something you need at a certain point, then you have to forget about it, go back to it. I hate the structure as a form of narration. I like ellipses. I like blocks. I like moments. And I try to make films with that.
NOTEBOOK: Binoche’s character here is a painter, which works wonderfully given how you return to these particular images. There’s this recurring one of Binoche facing away from the camera, and the back of her neck and her shoulders bare. But I’m curious why you chose painting as her profession.
DENIS: We wanted her to be fragile as artists are… As an artist you have to pay a price for this freedom, and to make a living is not an easy thing. A writer? No, because Christine is a writer. A filmmaker? No, because it would be too mirrored in the story. And Juliette is a painter. She was painting already in Leos Carax’s film Les amants du Pont-Neuf. I asked her and we took as an example Joan Mitchell, the famous American painter. You see her photographs in the film. Juliette and I like her work very much. That type of woman painter was really the model for Isabelle.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned earlier that in your mind Agony was the title of your film. I remember first hearing about the project and it was called Dark Glasses. Did that change early on?
DENIS: No, no. Because there was this fake news on the Internet that we were adapting Roland Barthes Fragments: A Lover’s Discourse. And “Agony” is one of the chapters, and you cannot ask a producer to have a film called Agony in his drawer. He would freak out. I thought: “Let’s call it Dark Glasses,” as if someone wanted to hide. But for me it was a fake title—just for the files. It was not a title for me.
NOTEBOOK: How was it working with your longtime director of photography Agnès Godard on this film, because it’s a very different sort of filming. For example, you have that shot of Xavier Beauvois and Juliette Binoche which is this fluid long take, but then you have these scenes where the camera just stays fixed, catching the dialogue, which is quite different from some of your previous work. How different was that?
DENIS: Number one was that we chose the 1.66 format to make it narrower. Number two is that we wanted to test this big, sunny camera, and it was sort of heavy. You couldn’t move it completely as I used to move with Agnès, so it changed a little bit. To make a film inside the car with that camera was not easy. And for me it was a challenge to accept, to be bothered by technique. I had to fight again my own fear of being too heavy with this camera, too obvious. In that small apartment, we were [spreads arms and gestures out]...
NOTEBOOK: So you tried to let the material speak for itself, I suppose?
DENIS: No, I never let the material speak. I had to speak, but suddenly, this camera was too big, too demanding. Everyone was looking on screen. So it was not the first time I was working in digital, but it was the first time I was working with such a heavy...machine-gun.
This interview was originally filmed at the Cannes Film Festival. Watch it here.