“Un Beau Soleil Intérieur”: On Claire Denis, Sylvia Plath and Letting the Sunshine in

I.

2018 has, to my mind, been a very good year for film. So many gifted filmmakers have produced excellent work which has challenged, excited, moved and inspired me, none more so than French master  Claire Denis, whose existential space epic High Life was the strangest, most intricate and innovative film I saw at this year’s New York Film Festival. But in fact it was another of Denis’s film, Un beau soleil intérieur, a rambling romantic dramedy which premiered at Cannes in 2017, which has had a more lasting and profound influence on me than just about anything else I’ve seen this year. The film, whose English title is Let The Sunshine In, follows Isabelle, a messy, divorced 40-something artist (a luminous Juliette Binoche) as she navigates love, sex, and attraction with three very different men, each of whom comes into her life with his own set of baggage and neuroses.

I saw the film at the IFC theater in April. Leaving the theater, I quite liked, but didn’t love it, and ultimately awarded it a solid three and a half stars in the film review column I write and publish exclusively in my own head. But in the time that has passed since then, I have been unable to stop thinking about it, specifically the final scene, which upon reflection is maybe my favorite film ending of the year. In it, Isabelle visits a fortune-teller of sorts (Gérard Depardieu), desperately hoping he can provide some clarity with respect to her woefully convoluted love life. While she has found joy and fulfillment, to various degrees, in other aspects of her life, she confesses to the fortune teller, “it is my emotional relationships that keep obsessing me.” Which of the three men she has been seeing, she wants to know, is the right one. Who should she choose, and why. Which one makes the most sense. Which one is her destiny.

The fortune-teller’s answer, to Isabelle’s initial frustration and disappointment, is that none of the three are “the one.” In response to a number of specific questions about each of the men, he offers some general insights and predictions, but nothing very definitive. What he provides instead, by way of advice, is something far more vague, and yet, somehow, exactly what Isabelle needs to hear.

It went something like this:

“Do not allow yourself to become obsessed by these men, or any others. Do not become trapped by your own ideas or expectations about romance or commitment. You will have love in your life. Each of these three will remain present in some capacity, some more importantly than others, and a number of others will arrive at your doorstep. Some will want only to use you. Do not allow yourself to be used. But as for the others, let them in. Keep yourself “open” to the possibilities they will bring, but do not concern yourself overly with where these possibilities will lead. Focus instead on yourself. Take care of what is essential in you. That is the most important thing. I live my life, and I take responsibility only for that. Otherwise, I let things happen. I don’t take care of the rest. I try instead to find a beautiful sun within. That’s what I ask of you.”

It takes a while for Isabelle to fully absorb and appreciate this concept, but she gets there eventually. By the time the credits wrap, she is smiling, almost glowing, as if, already, she has begun to let go, to open herself to the possibilities that surround her and to feel the warmth of that sun within.

It’s a gorgeous epilogue, written and acted with a kind of whimsical gravitas I was not expecting based on the plot or tone of the film that preceded it, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I can’t get it out of my mind. In a way the scene feels more theatrical than cinematic. It’s a kind of storytelling—the kind that is both subtle yet completely on the nose about the weighty things it is trying to say, and that is able to communicate them effectively without coming across as cloying or heavy-handed or inauthentic—that just doesn’t work often in films. But Denis nails it. The fact that I was able to connect to the scene in such a personal way that it is still on my mind many months later is surely a testament to that.

II.

They say the human body replaces itself every seven years. That our cells die and regrow at such a rate that after seven years, we are made of completely new cells. I don’t know if that’s true or not, scientifically, but I like the idea. Every seven years, you’re a new person. I’ll be turning 28 in about six months, which means, if the theory is correct, my current seven-year cycle is nearly over. In six months I will be a new person, a concept that thrills and terrifies me in equal measure. Thrills because I love a new beginning, and am just about always ready for one, and am certainly ready for one now. But terrified because it means another cycle in my life is over, and what have I accomplished? And how many more will I have? How many chances have I passed up, how many opportunities have I squandered, how much time—time I will never get back—have I wasted?

Perhaps it goes without saying at this point that I am more prone to existential dread than the average person, but there it is. It’s a horrible affliction, really, one I don’t wish on anyone I like, because while it may render those of us who suffer from it more passionate, ambitious and self-aware than those who don’t, it can destroy us quite easily if we let it. It can consume us from the inside, like it did our patron saint, Sylvia Plath. Like Sylvia, I am frequently overcome with sorrow and anguish at the realization that I can never be all of the people I want and live all the lives I want. I too want desperately to “live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.” And yet, I too find that I am “horribly limited.” I too feel constantly as if I am standing beneath that great green fig tree, fearing that I shall starve to death because I cannot make up my mind which figs to choose before they all begin wrinkling and going black and plopping to the ground at my feet. Because the reality is that I want them all. I want each and every one and I don’t want to choose. I don’t want to settle. I don’t want to give anything up. And I am haunted by the knowledge that, of course, in some ways, I must.

When you feel that way, as I do, very strongly, when you live in a constant state not just of hunger, but of desperate fear of starvation, it can be very difficult to feel hopeful or grateful or excited by the prospect of a blank page and a new beginning. Because beginnings inevitably mean endings. And endings inevitably mean failure to achieve all you’ve desired. It’s a truly vicious cycle, as anyone who has ever been trapped in it can attest, and if you allow yourself to think too much about it, choosing to put your head in the oven isn’t the least understandable thing a person could do.

III.

All that being said, I have no intention of putting my head in the oven, and doubt very much that I ever will. I’m far too vain and afraid of death, and, despite everything, still far too hopeful that I can attain at least a substantial portion of what I want in life.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I walk through life, like Isabelle, in a near perpetual state of anxiety, obsessed not only by my personal relationships, or, as the case may be (and often is), by the lack thereof, but also by my career prospects, my financial situation, my physical appearance and, at any given moment, about a hundred other things. I too want someone to give me the answers. Real, concrete answers about what I need to do to achieve my goals and meet my needs and fulfill my desires in love and life.

But of course, there are no answers. To go looking and expect to find them would be a fruitless effort, because they do not exist. So the best we can do, the only thing we can do, really, to quell our anxiety and satiate the screaming, aching hunger within is to keep ourselves “open.” To take care of what is essential in us and hope the things we want that are beyond our control will come. To find un beau soleil intérieur and allow it to radiate outwards. That’s the only chance we have, and better to realize it before it’s too late. That, to me, is what Denis and her co-writer Christine Agnot are saying with this film. And it’s something we all of us need reminding of, because boy are they right, just as the ever-wise Anaïs Nin was right when she articulated the same timeless concept many years ago (“Don’t wait for it, I said. Create a world, your world. Alone. Stand alone. And then love will come to you, then it comes to you.”).

IV.

With this in mind, over the next six months, as I prepare to say goodbye to one cycle of my life and begin another, I commit myself to the goal of staying “open.” To planting the seeds of the things I want most, and hoping the sun will shine and help them grow, and knowing that, if it doesn’t, the soleil intérieur will suffice. After all, in 27 years I have come a long way from where I started. I have created a life for myself I didn’t always think was possible. I live in a beautiful apartment in the greatest city the world. I travel. I go to the theatre, and the ballet, and museums. I read lots of books and see lots of plays and, God knows, watch lots of movies. I own many wonderful things. I am healthy. Some Friday nights I take the redeye to Paris, and spend the weekend eating croissants and gelato and wandering the Left Bank with my best friend. Some Sunday mornings I wake up in my bed in the arms of someone who isn’t right for me, but who brings me flowers and kisses my hands and would love me if I let him. There is love in my life, and comfort, and fulfillment, all at 27. I know it’s more than many people get in a lifetime, but I am fiercely selfish and desperately greedy and I want to so, so much more than that. But I also want very much to find a place within myself where I am capable of accepting, truly accepting, that if this is all there is for me, if it’s all there will ever be, it is enough. It has been enough. It will be enough.

Sylvia understood, maybe better than anyone,  the importance of choosing joy in the face of such circumstances as hers, and as mine. “I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.” I would like to think, as I grow older, I will become more capable to making the right choice in this regard, with less temptation toward the wrong one than I feel now.  But, realistically, I expect that despite my best efforts I will, on some level at least, always continue ricocheting between the two. Maybe that will drive me mad. But then, as another literary figure I worship would say, I suppose all the best people are.

V.

Un beau soleil intérieur” is not one of my favorite films of the year. It won’t make my top 10 list, and almost certainly wouldn’t even crack the top 20 (though Juliette likely will merit a spot on my favorite film performances list). And I’m glad for that. I’m glad the cinematic landscape today is so broad and rich and healthy that even in films that don’t entirely work for me, there is so much warmth and wisdom and artistry to draw from and be inspired by. It reminds me how much power and meaning and emotion film as a medium is capable of imparting, and makes me appreciate even more just how grateful I am to love movies, and to be loved by those who make them. Because really, the best films are nothing if not love letters to those who watch them. That’s what this film was for me, un gros bisous de Claire Denis. A kiss that has lingered on my cheek, that I can reach up and touch whenever I need to, like Pepper in my favorite episode of American Horror Story.

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And for that I say thank you, Ms. Denis, Alanis-style. Thank you for the empathy and the inspiration and the insight. As I continue on this path I have started down, which I hope very much will lead to a long and fruitful career in this industry, I will endeavor to someday return the favor, and to pass that love on–to place a lasting kiss on someone’s cheek like you have placed on mine.

xx

JB