The Beauty of a Rom-Com
By Alex WeintraubNovember 5, 2017
Few artistic genres have examined the consequences of our desire to make love and its embarrassments quite as incessantly as the romantic comedy. More often than not, however, the romantic comedy, or rom-com, genre has resulted in rather disappointing cinema and has offered an impoverished, or at least a hackneyed, view of love: one in which romantic love’s eventual triumph over a couple’s earlier erotic confusions is meant to signal a redemptive retreat from the film’s otherwise apparent recognition that love-making may never afford the affective finality of happily ever after. As a result, the rom-com is frequently relegated to the status of a minor genre, and this dismissal has in turn prevented any serious consideration as to why the romantic comedy should, every so often, occasion truly exceptional cinema. (Think of Howard Hawks’s screwball meet-cute Bringing Up Baby, or the uneasy giggles of Billy Wilder’s claustral The Apartment, or Woody Allen’s neurotic confection Annie Hall.) Claire Denis’s latest film, Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur), is one such remarkable romantic comedy. Approaching her new genre with formal ingenuity and from her typically philosophical vantage point, Denis establishes once and for all the romantic comedy’s capacity to generate major cinema.
Let the Sunshine In has been billed as an adaptation of the French post-structuralist Roland Barthes’s theoretical text A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977). For those unfamiliar with Barthes’s work, and perhaps even more so for those who are, this will seem like a peculiar source-text for narrative film. After all, Fragments is an experimental work of theory, which culls together a range of citations taken from literature (including Goethe and Proust), art (Greuze), film (Pasolini), and philosophy (Nietzsche), as well as from Barthes’s own personal conversations (with Jean-Louis Bouttes, for instance) in order to analyze how, but not necessarily why lovers speak the way they do. For Barthes, lovers are to be understood structurally (the semiotic function of a lover’s declaring, “Let’s make love”) and not psychologically (the sentimental causes for this lover’s declaring, “Let’s make love”), and so his own text is driven by a rigorously non-interpretive form of description, which amounts to a book-length series of vexing, titillating, and often dazzling pronouncements about love and human desire. These, in turn, are organized into individual sections concerning discrete discursive figures, which are, roughly speaking, signs or clusters of signs (comparable to Barthes’s earlier, structuralist concept of the mytheme) that lovers conventionally deploy in amorous speech. In an effort to produce a non-hierarchical work, one in which what comes first in the text is no less consequential than what concludes it, Barthes selected the arbitrary ordering system of the alphabet: “To be engulfed” (s’abîmer) is the first figure and “will-to-possess” (vouloir-saisir) is the last. With all of this in mind, it remains to be seen how anyone could adapt such a work and still end up with a successful film, let alone a romantic comedy. For Denis and her collaborating screenwriter, the novelist Christine Angot, the answer was pretty simple. You just make a fundamentally different kind of work.
Thus, Let the Sunshine In, which is a fairly straightforward examination of one woman’s ardent pursuit of romance, functions rather oddly as an adaptation. Unlike Denis’s earlier masterpiece, Beau Travail, which loosely resembled but drastically departed from Herman Melville’s unfinished Billy Budd, Let the Sunshine In might be better described as a loving retort to its source text rather than an adaptation of it. It seems to grapple with many of the figures and propositions presented in Fragments, but Denis transposes them into her film as narrative content.
For instance, in spite of the film’s clear debt to Barthes’s thinking, lovers’ discourse actually arrives in the film with a noticeable delay. The film opens, instead, with a silent bird’s-eye view of its protagonist, Isabelle (a painter), played with unrelenting precision by Juliette Binoche. This initial shot is cropped relatively closely to Binoche so that it captures her from the waist up, with her dreamy-eyed gaze directed straight at the camera and her nude breasts falling just shy of the lower-most framing edge. After this sensuous prelude, the camera cuts to an even closer-cropped and more actively filmed shot of love-making between Binoche and a hirsute paramour. It is only now, after a minute or so of non-verbal imagery, that speech enters the film with Isabelle’s piquant declaration: “Yes. There.” If discourse begins here as an affirmative intensification of the characters’ love-making, it soon results in their untimely decoupling, at the moment in which Isabelle’s insistent calls for her lover to climax lead him to make an insensitive jab about her previous partner’s stamina. Immediately upon hearing this remark, Isabelle breaks from their coital union and begins to cry for what will be the first of many times over the course of the film. (Crying, it should be mentioned, is one of the figures in Barthes’s Fragments.)
As with speech, the film’s comedy registers somewhat belatedly, particularly because of Binoche’s unflinching sincerity, which can make laughter feel vaguely inappropriate. Nevertheless, once her first lover — whom we have since found out is a cynical banker (Isabelle later admits to a friend that she always found him to be a total salaud [bastard]) who will never leave his wife for her — demands that a bartender go on a search for gluten-free olives, it becomes quite clear that we are meant to confront Isabelle’s repeated romantic disappointments (and there are many) and her repeated tears (ditto) with a certain detached lightness. Each episode is far too aestheticized to suggest otherwise. Notice, for instance, the wooden consistency with which Binoche’s crying is figured by a single teardrop trickling from her right eye. Think, as well, about the silly appropriateness of witnessing her affair with an actor unravel on the theatrical stage.
The film’s dialogue carries this same self-reflexive formality. On two occasions, Isabelle repeats the discourse of another character spoken to her in a previous scene. In the first, she sputters out a hilarious round of apologies before mustering the courage to ask her new gallerist whether or not what the bastard-banker had told her about the gallerist’s romantic past was true. In the second, she relays the jealous admonishments of a clearly amorous art-world pal to her about-to-be-dumped boyfriend. The original encounter with her bobo friend was itself already a kind of double-take, having occurred in the same restaurant and at the very same table as an earlier scene with a different friend, one in which Isabelle also talks about her romantic life (what else?).
The film’s forms only amplify these absurdist recursions. Its second bird’s-eye view aesthetically repeats the first. This time, we are in Isabelle’s atelier and we watch as she tacks a large, unprimed canvas to the studio floor (the canvas rhymes her original white bedsheets) and begins to paint a desultorily gestural tableau. The scene concludes just after she renders a cartoonish eye, which addresses the camera just as Binoche had in the opening shot. There is also that poster of Etta James, which hangs in Isabelle’s living room and turns out to foreshadow her later discotheque dance to James’s popular ballad “At Last.” This scene, in turn, recalls earlier disco sequences in Denis’s Beau Travail, where partners also begin to dance with each other without looking at one other. The director even seems to find an allegorical form for her work’s repetitive logic in the opening shot of a scene documenting Isabelle’s visit to her gallery’s vernissage. Here, we are presented with a couple of clumsy cloudscapes and listen as their untalented creator describes her daily painting practice to a potential buyer. Each composition, she explains, involves views ranging from 10- to 40-minute intervals, depending on the weather; and she emphasizes that she takes care never to miss a day in order to preserve the project’s conceptual foundation. While she speaks, the camera reverses its zoom and we are invited to take in an immense decorative grid of sublime kitsch.
As a sequence of individual temporal units — each representing redundant, deflating Romantic views — this grid of paintings may be taken to stand for the film in toto. Of course, Denis has not literally restricted herself to any such an arbitrary structure, and so her work only appears as if it were composed non-hierarchically. (The silliness of the serial cloud-grid might even quietly refute the validity of such readymade, quasi-Barthesian procedures.) Instead, she achieves a similarly vaporous quality by treating narrative time less as a progressive development of plot than as a gently modulating beat, what literary critic Leo Bersani has characterized as Denis’s work’s affinity with myth or fable. To this end, it seems crucial that Isabelle’s pre-diegetic past be looped into the film’s present. These returns take the form of Isabelle’s ex-lovers, including her two “chance” encounters with a former flame at the fishmonger and, more importantly, the appearance of her ex-husband (François), who returns to his and Isabelle’s once-shared bedroom for an unsuccessful round of love-making. After a few seconds of passionate kissing, François makes the erotically disastrous decision to place two of his fingers in his mouth (presumably to lubricate them). The gesture repels our protagonist, who accuses him of merely imitating what he has previously seen in porn. Equating “natural” love-making with a kind of ever-renewing authenticity, Isabelle can’t bear to recognize her own sexuality’s unoriginal imitativeness.
While the past recurs in the film as just another embarrassing repetition of love-making’s folly, Denis ingeniously concludes her film by establishing “true love” as an object endlessly deferred. This requires a somewhat inexplicable digression in order to loop in one of the film’s top-billers: the leading man Gérard Depardieu. A cliché nocturnal shot of the glittering Eiffel Tower transitions to a scene of a sorry Depardieu being dumped in the passenger seat of his lover’s car. Immediately following this narrative interruption, the camera cuts to Isabelle ringing the buzzer of an impressive wrought-iron entry gate and then cuts again to reveal her seated across a table from none other than Depardieu, who turns out to be (at least judging from the way his interior is appointed) a fabulously successful psychic guide. Over the course of this scene (the film’s last), these two titans of French cinema discuss the return of Isabelle’s recently abandoned discotheque boyfriend and her as-yet-to-be-consummated fling with a doting, paternal gallerist. The psychic nevertheless insists, as he swings a chunk of cut crystal over a photo of one of Isabelle’s lovers, that the man she is really waiting for is an actor-type who has yet to arrive. By this point, the film’s credits have started rolling and so we hear this premonition as we watch literal actor-types appear and fade on screen.
Superimposing the film’s final scene with its end credits, it becomes clear that Denis aimed to saturate each and every moment of her film with more and more repetitious incidents of Isabelle’s romantic desire. Even in this last encounter, we are left with the feeling that Isabelle’s interminable patterns of love-making may have been set only to repeat themselves anew as she awaits the arrival of this future actor-type, which, if we consider that Depardieu had himself only just arrived in the film, may allude to the film’s own potentially infinite extendibility. Whereas Barthes’s Fragments simulates lover’s discourse and the theoretician arranges the lover’s figures non-hierarchically by disposing them arbitrarily (i.e., alphabetically), Denis’s film aestheticizes the lover’s discourse as repeated efforts to make love. She also arranges the lover’s figures non-hierarchically, but she does so intentionally, since everything from her shot-angles, to the film’s interior decor, to Binoche’s teardrops register as the result of Denis’s fastidious editorial vision.
In Fragments, Barthes leaves his text open because he believes that lover’s discourse always awaits the beloved (as texts await their reader) to be completed. In Un beau soleil intérieur, on the other hand, only the narrative is granted such limitlessness. Everything else is arranged with meticulous authorial intention: the film itself closes with the same uncompromising formality it began with. Indeed the two shots — both of a bleary-eyed Binoche staring out at the viewer — mirror one another. In the end, Isabelle audibly repeats her guru’s discourse, after he tells her that in order to arrive at inner contentment (the approximate meaning of “un beau soleil intérieur”) one has to remain open. “Open,” she parrots and then she starts to grin. This smile must be understood as directed to no one in particular — except perhaps maybe Isabelle herself and/or that equally light-receptive apparatus of the camera — and so Let the Sunshine In concludes differently from Barthes’s Fragments by bringing its spectator into a congenial non-relation with the lover.
The film suggests that a true openness to romantic comedy may depend on our relative indifference to true love’s arrival. It would mean that we stop appropriating our beloved into that wishful discursive scheme of “Let’s make love” and experiment with different modes of passionate creativity. By developing a purely formal resolution to the rom-com’s chronic wish to make love, Denis saves herself and her audience from any such embarrassment. In so doing, she has also discovered a generic path to truly beautiful cinema.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Patricia White on several of the female-directed films at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, including "Lady Bird," "Euphoria," and...
Alex Weintraub on the truthiness of "Cézanne et Moi."
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!