By: Amir Ganjavie
Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In is an adaptation of Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. Now streaming at Mubi, it tells the story of Isabella, a middle aged divorced artist, played by Juliette Binoche, who is looking to give new meanings to her desire. Claire Denis and Juliette Binoche subvert fairytales tropes with fine irony here. I had the opportunity to interview the director where we discussed the process of writing the screenplay, performances, and her takes on female desire.
Amir Ganjavie, Phoenix Journal (PJ): This movie is very different from your past works since it has elements of comedy. It reminds me a little bit of Hong Sang-Soo’s films more than Bruno Dumont’s comedies.
Claire Denis (CD): I wish that I could be like Hong Sang-Soo. I would love it. Maybe it’s a total image of humor for me. It’s so sad, so tragic. Humor is like the way to be alive. It’s beautiful. I don’t think that I’m like someone you know. I cannot decide that I’m going to change like that. To be very honest, when we were working on the script with Christine, I was mostly sad. I was desperate with love but then when she was reading a scene aloud to me I realized that I was laughing. I was often in tears while shooting because of Juliette’s emotional variation. It’s so great. I was also in tears with all of those men at Jihadian. I was only in the editing room that I realized it was like a sort of tragicomedy.
(PJ): I’ve read a few articles about the first impressions of your film and a few compare it with the work of Nancy Meyers. Do you see any relationship there? It would be very interesting if you as a French director were influenced by a foreign director when you have people like Rohmer and Truffaut for references.
(CD): I think my only reference was my wish to go on working with Christine. We had made a short film before and I wanted to continue working with her. I had absolutely no total image from another director as an inspiration. I had enough with her and then Juliette.
(PJ): Did you write the script based on your and Christine’s own spheres or perspectives?
(CD): I would say that it was based on the mood we were in when we started working together. Relating our agony of love would have been too pathetic. I don’t know if we were in the mood for love or for agony.
(PJ): How did you develop those types of male characters? They’re a bit archetypical because I feel like I’ve met most of them.
(CD): The thing with Christine was that she’s thinking about the society where you come from, what it is to be an artist or an intellectual, as they say, and not being sure you like something for the right reason. We could understand each other, maybe we have experienced being attracted to a certain type of man who was not attracted to us as people but rather the artistic thing. I never go to bed or wake up thinking that I’m an artist. I’m a sad person. I’m a complex person. I have a headache. I never even speak the word “artist.” That’s why I like the scene with Josiane Balasko. Of course, she’s not there to hear that. She just wants to know if she’s been in bed with Francois. Maybe it’s caricatural. Basically, working in an artistic mode makes a sort of phantasm about who you are and what you’re like. Do you have this incredible sensitivity? No, maybe not.
(UM): I understand that you were inspired for this movie by reading Roland Barthes and you know that he’s a master of interpretation. It’s not easy to make a movie based on him so what method did you use?
(CD): The producer of this film had bought the rights to do the adaptation and he wanted to make a film with a few directors with each one choosing his own chapter. I was finishing this short film with Christine and I told him honestly that I would not dare to do the film. I was maybe eighteen and it was agony like you feel when you’re in love. He still wanted to do it and I said that I wanted to work with Christine and we would start from ourselves.
(PJ): It’s fun and sad at the same time. We all think that this is a unique experience but actually everybody goes through it.
(CD): Yeah, I always believe that some people are happier and more well-balanced than me and that I’m the only one who goes through terrible doubts. I always think that everyone is normal except for me and probably also Christine. We go through a phase of despair with ourselves. Maybe that’s why our meeting so long ago was so important. We understood that part of desperation with oneself. That is why Hong Sang-Soo is a great friend and a great director. He knows that I would pay the price for love.
(PJ): What would you like to tell women of a certain age these days about this mood or the relationship with love or the search for love?
(CD): Nothing. I want to say nothing to women. I will never imagine that I can make a film for women or tell my own experience to women. I will never be able to do that. I would be afraid to believe that it’s possible. I’m not a good example for any woman. And this film is also for men. It’s a life.
(PJ): What’s your opinion on the relationship between men and women and whether it’s changed over the last few decades?
(CD): I’m so upset with this thing about women. I can’t believe that this is possible today.
(PJ): But do you think that this relationship has changed over the last few decades?
(CD): I don’t know. Maybe a hundred years ago to be 50 was to be dead already so what can I say? It’s a beautiful woman. She’s so attractive. I don’t care if she’s 50 or not. She’s that woman. She wants to be that woman. She has a great body. I did two shots of her hands because they’re beautiful. They can hold a lot of things. Maybe they can’t hold my love affair but they can hold a lot of things. For me, of course, I want that change obviously and when I started making movies those scenes didn’t exist. On the other hand, I think that society has changed. The gap between rich and poor has also changed a lot. There is less hope than when I was a young girl, when it seemed like the world had to be better. My grandparents and my parents had seen the wars. I grew up in Africa so I was hoping for a better world like my parents were. Of course, suddenly, the twenty-first century is around. Is everything now hopeless or is it just because I’m older? I don’t know. Maybe it’s that my body is not hoping anymore. Maybe, it’s a question of age. I don’t want to say that the world was better when I was 14 or 15 but it was truly full of hope after the Algerian War, the independence wars throughout Africa, and the Vietnam War. The hope was to solve this. Maybe if I were 12 right now then I would not like to hear someone say that their world was better than mine. I would be afraid to say that too. The world has also changed a lot economically. When I was young there was a belief that the economy was going to be more justice but now it’s not.
(PJ): You said earlier that you cried while writing and shooting. We all laughed, or at at least I’ve laughed about it. Was it a laugh of relief or did you also laugh in the cinema?
(CD): No, I laughed in the editing room but not on the set.
(PJ): Is it a relief to laugh at your own pain? It’s ridiculous and it's not that big and it goes away eventually.
(CD): It’s not ridiculous. It’s big and painful but you can laugh about it because we are still alive but it’s big. Really, it’s heavy sometimes. Agony is the right word to use for what was inside me. That’s probably something that I can easily share with Christine even though we’re able to be very joyous and happy people. When I say that I was crying it was while watching Juliette. To see her playing the part of Isabel was very moving.
(PJ): You once said that you want to create fresh complications in your films. Does that mean complications for you in terms of the subject matter more than the actual technical aspects of making the film? What was the most complicated thing for you in this film?
(CD): It’s about being able to speak about the film not in terms of technique but in terms of a challenge for us, especially with the new techniques now. I want to experience each film differently without having to change oneself but to be challenging ourselves. This is very important but in the end I realized there isn’t much choice in directing except for technical chic.
(PJ): Juliette Binoche is imposing for most of the movie and her character controls all of the situations except for the ending. The 16-minute, two-part ending is great and shows how the balance between these characters has changed. It’s very impressive.
(CD): It’s so impressive. He’s a massive man who has a massive look and he knows it so he’s using that on her like a cannon but then eyes suddenly become more fragile, more petite. I agree with you. I felt the same.
(PJ): Was she always your first choice? Did you fight for her?
(CD): Yes, she was the only choice.
(PJ): Your film is quite different from your earlier work in terms of style. There are more close-ups here. We can see a lot.
(CD): Yes, that’s because we were shooting in a small location. We were shooting with digital and with a specific lens to make it denser. Instead of shooting at 185, I shot 166. It’s not completely square and there isn’t much space around them.
(PJ): So it’s a 16-minute line take?
(CD): That’s right. I was told “Claire, you have the credits too low. You cannot ask the audience to sit for sixteen minutes.” I said “It happened in one day so I cannot cut.” Then I decided to put the credits over the end so nobody would ask me to cut any more.
(PJ): Is it true that shooting only took between five and seven weeks?
(CD): I wanted seven but it was five. I was waiting for the studio in Germany and we were working with Christine while waiting. Then we suddenly got the money from the CNC and the producers said “let’s go.”
(PJ): There are some very interesting songs in the movie, especially “At Last.” Can you say anything about that?
(CD): This song “At Last” by Etta James was really what I told Juliette when we spoke about the character. I said “Look, Juliette. Listen to Etta James. Look at her. Look at what kind of woman she is when she’s already searching and singing on camera. You will see the pure strength of femininity but also of despair.” It’s beautiful to me when she sings “At Last” but you know in the way she sings that it won’t last very long. The suffering before was big. For me, she’s like Johnny Cash. She carries in her the pain of being a human being and a great singer. And I also believe in love. Those two are important.