Just Maybe, A Flash of Joy

Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur);  2017 / France; a film by Claire Denis; with Juliette Binoche, Gérard Depardieu; inspired by Roland Barthes' 'A Lover's Discourse’; Curzon Soho

Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida: names to conjure with, a decade or two ago, spreading panic in the souls of undergraduates everywhere, and not just those attempting fairy floss degrees of Literature or Philosophy. Their heresies emerged like a kind of holy fire, Deconstruction, Semiotics, Post-Structuralism, burning corruption into every field of the Humanities: Linguistics, History, Gender Studies, and horror of horrors, Politics and Economics. Nothing was as it had formerly seemed. The only place you could look, from now on, was inside. There was no longer any external power that wasn’t tainted, rotten, coloured by suspect motivation, ruled secretly via manipulation and mendacity. The answer: look inside yourself for liberation. Inward lay freedom.

Looked at another way, from another standpoint, one occupied by those eager to believe, what’s more exciting than a bonfire? Sweep it all away, the ridiculous canon of accepted writers and thinkers, the discredited and outdated gospel of a dead and decomposing social, political, economic, artistic creed. Why wouldn’t the baby boomer generation wholeheartedly embrace something so utterly new and inherently destructive; after all, in destruction lay true creativity, no?

It seems such a little while ago that someone declared the end of history; someone else the end of the generation gap; someone else the end of boom and bust. The end of the age of the baby boomers seems not to have been so blithely predicted by its constituents. So far. The book which inspired this film perhaps, in its self-satirical tone, predicted its end as early as 1978, maybe, in retrospect, at the zenith of the age. Fragment d’un discours amoureux, translated as A Lover’s Discourse, Fragments, (a translation that is perhaps as unsatisfying as the English translation of this film’s title, which even to my poor French tends to suggest some kind of inner sun, a personal sunlight, rather than opening up to an outside source of sunlight*) isn’t specifically about a particular lover, is rather about those kinds of fragments, or figures, as in the movements of a skater or the shapes of a dancer, fragments of love speak, bits and pieces of the multiple ways anyone who fancies being in love can torture themselves. 

Barthes arranges these fragments alphabetically. This is in an attempt to avoid a random ordering, because, as he says, chance may have unwittingly produced logical sequences and the corollary of that might be meaning and what follows meaning as night follows day is: philosophy! The last thing he wanted to suggest was a philosophy of love or of a lover’s self-laceration.

It should be noted now that the book is a lot of fun. As is the film. Claire Denis and her collaborators get the intense seriousness, the source of the humour, exactly as the book, just right. Love is a solo sport, mais non? Everything is random, and nothing is. One love affair has nothing to do with and no connection to any other, non sequitur after cul-de-sac after wrong turning. I am the only source of all my heartache and happiness. Everyone is a mystery, simply existing to cause me grief or, just maybe, a flash of joy.

It seems a truism that the lover exists (or ought to) to offer love and happiness to another. That to focus on their own experience is somehow a little embarrassing, a bit too much information. And yet, there’s also something unhealthy, feeble, unsound about the too, too unselfish lover, the endless supplication, the sacrifice, the surrender. One inward landscape is in danger of looking just like another.

It’s another truism that no one predicted the internet, or Facebook, and yet everyone did. It seemed, all those years ago, not such a stretch that the evil corporation could find a way to reach into your home, your bedroom, your very soul, to sell you stuff, stuff the baby boomers of 1978 yearned for; that a turning inward was nothing so much as a challenge to evil commerce as it was a leap for freedom.

In the age of the machine, of the factory and of factory politics, everything outside looked malevolent and out of control. The only thing that was true, that could be relied upon, was inside, the landscape of the inner life, where all certainty resided. (It’s remarkable that Facebook, ostensibly a friend to the personal, should turn out to be so malevolent.)

I guess what Barthes, and Claire Denis, is hinting at is that love, conversely, concerns a turn away from the personal to a concern for building something separate from both lovers. An external force over which we have no control is threatening. Building something external together can connect us in ways that are beyond the binary of me good, out there bad.

The work of these philosophers, their ideas, have entered the mainstream in such a pervasive way that it’s almost impossible not to know, secondhand, at least, that they stood for a kind of courage, that it was everyone’s responsibility to keep looking, searching, weighing up; that all received wisdom is suspect and something which is free, or free spirited, is the most suspect of all.

Is Barthes’ satire just a little too clever for its own good? But who could possibly miss the humour in lovers’ agony alphabetised? Those in love with love, maybe? And the film? Could Isabelle’s (Juliet Binoche) serial search for love be taken seriously? If you didn’t know the book maybe; and the idea that love is now something which has to provide a personal, private return, as though it was somehow listed on the stock exchange, is becoming so pervasive in our culture that anything’s possible. But the film really is very funny, and ultimately, a wonderful take on the work of a great writer and philosopher.

* Claire Denis herself, in discussing the film, uses the phrases, ‘beautiful inner light, the soul’s radiant blaze’.

Paul Corcoran