The most shocking development in the French infidelity drama Bright Days Ahead is the heroine Caroline’s decision to resume smoking. She announces it twice, to an indifferent husband (Patrick Chesnais) and to a slightly more surprised daughter, with the ardor of a person who gives not a fuck. Call it a unsubtle mea culpa, an admission besides which fucking around with a man twenty years her junior looks silly. Retired after decades as a dentist, Caroline resists the entertainments offered at the retirement community after which the film is named: pottery lessons, yoga, amateur productions, and, most, what the French call l’informatique. That a sixty-year-old woman in the twenty-first century needs computer lessons is absurd, but as Cate Blanchett learned in Blue Jasmine it’s how you meet available guys who aren’t gay. Instructor Julien (Laurent Lafitte) flirts with the mastery of a man who can always say he didn’t mean it if called out. Besides, he needs dental work but apparently not a barber to eliminate the hideous goatee. She takes him to her old clinic. “I wouldn’t mind doing a molar from time to time,” Caroline says. Time for a deep cleaning. At the eighteen-minute mark he and Caroline have had their first kiss; at the twenty-minute mark they are fondling in the car. By the time the clock strikes thirty minutes she’s loosened her hair and trading puffs of a joint and swigs of red wine on his bed.
Francois Ozon rendered Young & Beautiful as a narrative whose elisions and lacuna were crucial to keeping its young prostitute at a distance akin to a sculptor and his model. Although barely over ninety minutes, Bright Days Ahead mistrusts the audience. Wary of ambiguity, Marion Vernoux takes a chronological trudge through discovering-myself banalities. During ruminative moments Caroline stares at the sea. There’s a lot of staring at the sea in this picture. She checks her cell phone often. She asks about other women; Julien parries. At a chichi wine bar called — ho ho — the Garden of Delights where Caroline panics at the thought of being seen by friends, Julien suggests they run out without paying. L’amour fou and all that. Vernoux actually includes a montage of the couple that resembles this wizardly sequence but kitschy piano trills substituting.
As played by Fanny Ardant, Caroline has let the years accumulate without her marking that sixty years have been lived. Interacting with the women at Bright Days Ahead, she’s stiff and humorless, a novitiate who accepts retirement as an entombment. The expected thing would be to watch as Ardant seizes life with renewed intensity, but Vernoux includes two inhibitors. First, while a wonderful camera object, Ardant is not a resourceful actress, resorting even in her The Woman Next Door days to oh-sweet-mystery-of-woman softness encouraged by adoring male directors (still, applause for the generous kohl eyeliner that even husband Philippe wonders why she applies; a fool for love, that Caroline). Secondly, Philippe’s posture, predetermined in movies like this, undercuts Caroline’s risk-taking. If nothing is at stake, nothing is delivered. But their most eyeopening decision happens in the last two minutes. If you remember Cocoon, you know what I mean.