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When a romantic drama has one scene of a new couple running for shelter from the rain, you may forgive the brief eye-roller. When a romantic drama has two scenes of a new couple running for shelter from the rain—at night, with the shelter being a carousel—it’s entered Nicholas Sparks territory.
Bright Days Ahead, adapted from a Fanny Chesnel novel and directed by Marion Vernoux, is laced with a bit of tartness that mostly keeps its treacle in check. (It is French, after all.) But even though the story is about an affair between a 60-year-old woman and a 30-something man, it’s not exactly Last Tango in Paris, either.
Caroline (Fanny Ardant), is a retired dentist—even her profession is boring—whose daughters buy her a trial membership to a senior center. She checks it out, hesitatingly entering a drama class that’s already begun. The retirees are prancing in a circle, being instructed by an irritating younger woman to shake their wrists, stick out their tongues, loosen up. They look like preschoolers. Still, Caroline joins them, and is later pulled to the front of the class and ordered to give a hearty belly laugh, with the instructor repeatedly giving examples and looking like a high-strung lunatic. Caroline’s not playing. “I get it: Laugh,” she tells Lunatic, and soon walks out in her heels and fashionable trench coat. You’re immediately on her side.
But then Caroline, long married to another dentist, Philippe (Patrick Chesnais), starts screwing the center’s handsome computer instructor, Julien (Laurent Lafitte). And that’s when things get dull. Ardant’s Caroline is a sophisticated, Deneuve-esque blond, but as soon as she starts walking barefoot on the beach, you know that sheer steaminess isn’t what Vernoux has in mind. Caroline and Julien may rarely leave the bedroom—or the closet, or the car—but it’s meant to be love, not lust. That the director quotes a shot from The Graduate only further highlights the disconnect.
Caroline is also revealed to be more bitchy than strong-minded. Her sarcastic response quiets Julien when he suggests she could fill some time volunteering, and in the alcohol-fueled afterglow of an encounter that Caroline covered up by telling Philippe that she needed to visit an on-the-verge friend, she mocks the real woman’s depression. And although Julien is often charming, there’s little but the script to prove the attraction between the two. Chesnais’ sardonic, worldly, and not-blind Philippe is clearly the keeper here. As far as the couple’s daughters, they show up only when the story needs to be advanced.
The central characters also start to behave inconsistently, which further confuses the seeming point of the film: that Caroline has her spirit renewed by the affair. She’s not sorry, then she is sorry, and back again. Julien’s a great guy until he’s a jerk. But guess how he ends up? Was this actually supposed to be love? At one point there’s actually a shot of two ships crossing—really, Vernoux? There’s also a fair amount of discussion about the sex lives and general vitality of the female AARP-and-up demographic. Yes, yes—life doesn’t end when your period does. We get it.