Etta James and her signature song "At Last" provide a counterpoint to the trysts that pass for love in Un Beau Soleil Interieur, what may be best labeled a very black romantic comedy by French director Claire Denis (“Chocolat,” “White Material”).
James's hit plays in a rural bar as Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), recovering from a falling out with some friends at a nearby artists' retreat, sways alone to the swooning string lines and romantic lyrics: "At last, my love has come along, My lonely days are over, and life is like a song." From the back of the room, a rough-looking workingman approaches, and the two sway together, connected in a moment and movement that transcends words and worlds, far removed from the complications of real life.
The scene embodies a romantic ideal. But Isabelle (and Denis and co-writer, novelist Christine Angot) know that such moments are fleeting at best. Perhaps that's why James gazes down (in judgment? sympathy? amusement?) from an album cover on Isabelle's apartment wall as various men come and go, seldom providing the satisfaction she seeks.
A middle-aged divorced mother and successful painter living in Paris, Isabelle seems to have no problem attracting men. In fact, the film is essentially built around a series of liaisons with lovers, old and new, that flare up but inevitably sputter.
It would be easy to blame her disappointments on the men, most of whom are married and looking for a reprieve from their wives (at least one of whom goes out of his way to clarify that he will not leave his wife for Isabelle: “You’re charming, but my wife is extraordinary”).
It would be easy to attribute her troubled love-life to the limited pool of men available to a middle-aged woman.
And as we watch her make attempt after attempt to connect, it becomes tempting to blame Isabelle, herself, for her problems. At some moments, as she verbally spars with lovers or endures their vapid seductions and excuses, one wants to shake her and scream, "Dump him!"
But at her core, Isabelle is a very human knot of contradictions. Her sexual confidence, signified by the too-young pair of thigh-high, stiletto-heel boots she dons for nearly every date, is replaced by tears as she staggers down the hall later that night, awkwardly pulling them off and leaving them where they drop. She mentions a 10-year-old daughter, but we only catch a glimpse of her through a car window. In a single scene, she can move from demanding to end the date to begging her companion to come up.
Denis keeps those conflicts front and center, the camera fixed closely on Binoche--on her darting eyes, her nervous fingers, her grip on a car armrest as she and a date verbally spar as a form of foreplay.
Against the film's closing credits, the voice of hope reappears, this time in the form of a charlatan psychic (Gerard Depardieu) who implores Isabelle to remain open to the light (hence, the title), to possibility, to the man who is coming.
A message of love, or another come-on?