Bright Days Ahead (Les beaux jours)

France (2013) Dir. Marion Vernoux

Paris may be the City Of Love but, if French cinema is to be believed, it also the epicentre of adultery and infidelity. Many a great romantic drama or the occasional comedy, has seen our Gallic neighbours failing to keep it in the family as one – or even both – partners in a marriage or relationship end up in the beds of another!

Bright Days Ahead, Marion Vernoux’s adaptation of a Fanny Chesnel novel, is another entry into this overcrowded catalogue of films covering this subject, which, despite, some strong central performances, demonstrates how reinventing the wheel really can be a fruitless task. The philanderer in this tale is Caroline (Fanny Ardant), a recently retired dentist who uses a free trial voucher from her daughters for a group of courses for retired people. In the computer class, Caroline becomes attracted to her tutor, the much younger Julien (Laurent Lafitte) for whom the feeling is mutual and the inevitable affair begins.

Interestingly when people being to notice the frisson between the two – not limited to the constant twenty minute disappearances together into the storage room during classes – or when they frequent public establishments no-one actually bats an eye lid at the age difference thus the fact they are an adulterous couple doesn’t register with them. But when they are eventually rumbled, her fellow female retirees at the centre give her the thumbs up for having good taste!

To be fair Fanny Ardant doesn’t look her age or her character’s age at 64 and dressed in fairly chic, modern attire she doesn’t scream pensioner either while Julien being around 40 the age gap isn’t as bad as if he was 18 or so. Both realise that this union is based on lust with Caroline enjoying the danger it brings to her life while her husband Philippe (Patrick Chesnais) continues to entertain their stuffy old friends.

Julien may have been the initial instigator in this affair but Caroline is the one who picks up the baton and wants to exchange phone numbers, shows up unannounced at Julien’s place or gets jealous when he receives attention with other women. Caroline already knows Julien’s partner – the drama teacher at the events centre Lydia (Olivia Côte), with whom Caroline had a brusque exchange on her first day on the course – yet from the audience’s point of view Caroline is the much preferable option of the two women, from both a physical and personality perspective.

Written by a woman and directed by a woman it is almost the tone is one seemingly condoning Caroline’s affair, presenting it as a positive strike for the older woman. That isn’t to say that all the men were portrayed as pigs or wife beaters but this does have a skewed feminist aura about it. Philippe by all accounts is a decent chap but now his wife isn’t working (as we learn later, it might be his fault) his workload has increased, meaning less time at home. This lack of togetherness apparently is just cause for Caroline wander, or at least that is the inference.

One cliché avoided – or maybe it is just found in men – is that Caroline doesn’t suddenly regain her youth by dressing up in clothes beneath her years or behave in a manner to suggest she has to keep up with her younger paramour. Aside from starting smoking again (as a dentist shouldn’t she be against it?), Caroline instead gets to stay sixty and sexy as if this is what attracts Julien to her. This puts Caroline up there with Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate (coincidentally Ardant does resemble Anne Bancroft here) and less an embarrassment like modern day cougars.

Marion Vernoux’s direction is light and breezy for what should be a fraught tale of infidelity, and she has some fun with the naughty liaisons between our May to December lovers with a cute montage package of their storage cupboard romps, which become more frequent and less clandestine as time progresses. There is nothing explicit here nor is it particularly sexy but Vernoux gets across the sizzle between the two and, dare I say it, fun they had together.

What is unclear is that if Vernoux or writer Fanny Chesnel (who also has a small role in the film) are suggesting it is all right to have affairs if you are bored or need a distraction, while little in the way of consequences for Caroline’s actions are shown. Certainly she and Philippe have the expected showdown when the secret comes out but one thing that is  missing is the drama. This might be a way to subvert the genre by avoiding what is by now a predictable development but when you have the acting talent at your disposal that Vernoux has here it seems a shame to not use them to their fullest.

Fanny Ardant won an award for her role as Caroline and it was well deserved. She is in that position of being a glamorous granny yet she isn’t overdone to look like she should stand out from the others. Ardant herself recognises this and is able to slip into the crowd and have the audience seek her out which is a rare talent from a big star and she maintains such astute nuances until the final frame. Laurent Lafitte makes for a suitable younger lover while Patrick Chesnais is a fine choice of sparring partner for Ardant but their screen time together is fleeting until the critical final act.

I’m not sure what it is but Bright Days Ahead is a film which doesn’t do anything particularly wrong and is well made and superbly acted, but – moral ambiguity aside – lacks that much needed savage bite which would have made it more than just a pleasant enough 88 minute distraction.