Les Beaux Jours (Bright Days Ahead)
Dir: Marion Vernoux
Cert: 15 • France: 94 min • Les Films du Kiosque, 27.11 Production • June 19, 2013
Alex Ramon reviews
In Marion Vernoux’s Les Beaux Jours (Bright Days Ahead), which was among the films screened in this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema season, Fanny Ardant plays Caroline, a 60-year-old wife, mother and grandmother who’s just retired from her profession as a dentist and who promptly discovers an exciting way to fill her new free time: an affair with Julien (Laurent Lafitte), who is over 20 years her junior. The pair meet when Caroline is persuaded by her family to join the facility of the title, a club for seniors, where Julien works as a computer consultant. And so, rather than immersing herself in the activities the club offers, with a sideline of hosting dinner parties for her gruff workaholic spouse (Patrice Chesnais), it’s not long before Caroline is shirking her duties for the more enticing pleasures of illicit broom-cupboard sex sessions and post-coital spliffs.
An unabashed vehicle for its fragrant star, the entertaining Bright Days Ahead chimes irresistibly with the current vogue for films exploring “Third Age” experiences, and will possibly get a wider release in the UK and the US than it might have done due to this trend. If, just occasionally, the film seems a little bit too pleased with itself for placing an unrepentantly pleasure-driven mature female protagonist centre stage, its focus doesn’t look too calculated, particularly since contemporary French cinema (unlike contemporary US cinema) has excelled at making films that feature well-drawn characters of a range of ages. Indeed, though it lacks their elements of stylistic daring, at its best Bright Days Ahead has something of the free-wheeling, tough-but-tender spirit of Christophe Honoré’s brilliant family portraits (2009’s Making Plans For Lena, in particular), in which the protagonists do and say often dislikeable things to each other without, somehow, losing the viewer’s sympathy and interest. Adapted by Vernoux and Fanny Chesnal from the latter’s novel, Bright Days Ahead features some enjoyably tart dialogue exchanges and often twists its scenes in quirky, unexpected directions.
The film is especially good at conveying the rhythm of an affair – its ebbs and flows of feeling, the mix of excitement and frustration – but it does so in a particular, un-obsessive way. Caroline and Julien enjoy each other sexually but neither one really becomes hopelessly devoted to the other. He’s still checking out other women while he’s with her, and she’s involved for novelty more than love. In this way, the film keeps its cool, distanced wit, avoiding the slide into hysteria that marred the May-to-December affair in Roger Michell’s similarly-themed The Mother (2003).
There are some odd, sketchy elements – Caroline’s attitude to her grandchildren, for example, seems to veer wildly from total indifference to utter devotion – and the plotting in relation to the revelation of the affair (which, all of a sudden, practically everyone else in the movie seems to know about) is fuzzy. But, even so, Bright Days Ahead has the advantage of a true work of art in its lead actress. As Caroline, indeed, Ardant has seldom been more varied or more emotionally engaging, moving beyond the aloofness that’s sometimes characterised her screen persona to create a fully rounded protagonist. At times she resembles Julie Christie here, and there’s something of Christie’s style in her super-subtle, carefully modulated acting throughout: the kind of intimate performance in which the character’s every half-submerged thought is communicated to the viewer. A bedroom scene that finds Caroline with her hair mussed, giggling and getting high, is destined for “instant classic” status.
Certainly Vernoux swoons over her star, but the film does manage to feel inhabited elsewhere, with deft work from Lafitte as the lover, from Chesnais as the cuckold, and from Marie Rivère (lachrymose as ever), as a fellow club member whose depressive episodes provide Caroline with a perfect excuse to escape her family duties and then head to Julien’s place. There’s a whiff of conservatism to the conclusion that Vernoux and Chesnal have devised but, even when the director’s touch falters, Ardant’s great performance makes Bright Days Ahead shine.