Finally, a film about an older woman who has an affair, and doesn’t get punished by the narrative. How delightful! How unusual! It isn’t as if Bright Days Ahead (Les Beaux jours) is a masterpiece, but it does get a few things right and it is very understanding of the difficulties that face women as we age and face our own mortality. Ironically, it is the very things that the film gets right that are criticized and singled out as problematic. It never ceases to amaze me how much men despise women who own their own bodies and their own sexuality, especially women who have the audacity to transgress what is allowable behavior (even in a fictional narrative) as defined by male critics.
Yes, this is a film in which an older married woman, Caroline (a ravishing Fanny Ardant) falls into an affair with a much younger man, a womanizer named Julien (Laurent Lafitte, who looks and behaves a bit like Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right); and yes, she is reckless and selfish and even a bit cruel to her husband Philippe (the brilliant actor Patrick Chesnais), but no – the film is not superficial and it isn’t the predictable or insignificant featherweight trifle that one might expect after glancing at most reviews.
There is an unexpected depth and resonance to the film, largely because of the writing and direction of Marion Vernoux who takes us inside the subjectivity of her main character, and it works because of Fanny Ardant’s ability to invite us inside her world. Caroline is a dentist who is well-coiffed, privileged and hides behind her designer shades, but her off-putting exterior recedes as we come to really know her as someone who refuses to behave and abide by the rules of the game. She is quirky and sometimes childish, and has more than a little punkish disregard for the rules of bourgeois life, but she is in pain, a pain that she hides well, that is manifested more in her childish behavior than in grand melodramatic touches that are blessedly absent in this film.
Her affair brings her surprisingly little anguish and it avoids stereotypical melodrama, but that does not make the film a dismissible bonbon. What is significant here is that women are not discarded as unimportant trifles in this film, yet that is what seems to trouble many critics. They appear to want more melodrama, more anguish, more tears and fighting, in short – they want to see this woman suffer. Well, to hell with them. Older women’s experiences are well worth revisiting and I find myself oddly moved by this disarming film.
When we meet her, Caroline has very recently retired, but she is bored out of her mind and completely unprepared for retirement. She is not propelled into an affair by any of the usual plot points such as a feeling that she has lost her to-be-looked-at-ness; nor is she really looking for something missing in her marriage. She is not married to a cold rotten bastard in the way Kristin Scott Thomas is in Catherine Corsini’s terrific and terrifying Leaving, though she is just as bored by a suddenly idle bourgeois lifestyle. If anything, her husband loves her deeply, but the two are at different stages in life and they are both equally responsible for allowing their marriage to decay into a boring routine. Refreshingly, neither of them are held to blame; it is simply something that can happen in even the strongest long-term marriages.
What is at the root of Caroline’s behavior is two things (the film doesn’t play by the rules of overly simplistic narratives); she recently lost her good friend to cancer and this has filled her with terror and moved her into an engagement with mortality, even though she isn’t really aware of it; and she really feels isolated by her privilege, she deeply desires to be touched and sexually ravished in a way that is perhaps only possible in the initial stages of any romantic liaison. Caroline is not looking for love or romance, she doesn’t have any illusions that the affair is anything more than it is and she is determined to get what she wants out of it; the charge of skin touching, the bad-boy recklessness of meeting her own sexual needs and the rush of being desirable to a young man.
Actually, Caroline is the one who makes herself feel indescribably sexy via the affair. Caroline is in charge of her body and sexuality, she is rekindling love and desirability for herself more than she is with her lover, and for a few fleeting moments she is able to push away the boredom of retirement and the fears that come with aging and mortality. She, more than anyone, appears to recognize that her affair is not some sort of answer for her larger problems, but she enjoys the casual sex and she learns much from the experience. She learns that she is much stronger than she thinks.
Caroline is proud of her sexual prowess, and in sex scenes she is enjoying herself. Unfortunately there are some inevitable casualties, and her treatment of her husband is rather cruel. She leaves her husband so many clues to her affair that she may as well have put up a neon sign, but I think she wants very much for him to find out about the affair. She wants something, (anything) to end the boredom in their marriage. In some ways her behavior may be construed as a desperate attempt to change things and she is ultimately successful. In any other film, Caroline would be not only unlikable, she would be brought to her knees and punished for allowing herself to find relief from her fears and boredom via a sexual affair. Marion Vernoux has no such thing in mind.
Though it doesn’t revolve around an extra-marital affair, Roger Michell’s completely unsuccessful Le Week-End explores similar terrain, and, puzzlingly, garnered enthusiastic praise for it’s supposed “sophisticated” exploration of the late life ennui of a bored upper middle class married couple; but I never felt anything but revulsion for the couple in this contrived, Disney-esque, by the numbers geriatric rom-com. I never believed a second of the film; it seemed synthetic from start to finish: no stereotype left unfulfilled, no cliché unmet, an awful film that despises its audience.
For all the critical praise the film received, I never thought there was a single frame of Le Week-End that wasn’t designed to pull at my emotional heartstrings; yet it is hailed as the second coming. Aging academics in this film are reduced to infantile projections; see how cute they are? They fight all the time! Adorable. They dine and dash! Aren’t they so much like children? Oddly, Bright Days Ahead contains a dine and dash scene, but here it comes off as sincere, probably because the clandestine couple are actually escaping a restaurant where people arrive who know Caroline as a married woman and recognize immediately that she is having an affair. In short, there are reasons behind the unreasonable behavior of the characters in Bright Days Ahead.
For many, Vernoux’s film will probably never be viewed as anything more than an easily disregarded piece of art house candy, a trifling look at the life of an aging female. The world dismisses aging women and would prefer we simply disappear. It should come as no surprise that films that don’t punish the trespasses of a gorgeous and sexually liberated female will never be met with anything but dismissal. The language used to describe older women in our culture drives me insane. An aging but gorgeous woman such as Fanny Ardant is often characterized as some sort of freak of nature, but I think of aging women as possibly even more beautiful than young ingénues, and why oh why must women maintain the ruthless competition over beauty and age? Why, all the better to maintain the pillars of patriarchy.
When do older, attractive men ever get referred to as “of a certain age”? Never. Even in the film, a jealous female character says of Caroline, “she’s well preserved,” a phrase that condones the idea that women “of a certain age” (a phrase I despise) are beautiful despite the fact that they are already dead according to the rules of society; simply put: women in our culture are supposed to disappear as soon as they age a day over forty.
An older woman who is both beautiful and sexual is usually viewed as a freak and an abomination; she is, almost by the mere virtue of her existence, a crime against Nature. There are countless magazine stories about women “of a certain age” who are “still beautiful” and still desirable, still worth looking at, and the attention to such women often centers on their “well preservedness” as if they are specimens in a jar worthy of a museum.
Instead of putting Fanny Ardant in a jar full of preservatives, Marion Vernoux and Fanny Ardant conjure a fully alive real human being in the gorgeous body of an elegant and quite human woman who is self-assured, confidant and strikes a pose in her sunglasses as if she herself well knows that she is extremely attractive to men and to herself. (Parenthetically, if you wish to see women being punished for their sexuality, look no further than Lars von Trier’s work, especially his latest empty monstrosity, Nymphomaniac).
I am sure there are those who will complain that the sex scenes don’t show enough skin, but Vernoux understands that for women, sexual pleasure is all about what is going on in her mind, and we spend a great deal of time viewing Ardant’s post coital pleasured face and body, displaying a buoyancy that is released in her as she enjoys her sexual affair. Fanny Ardant smolders with sexuality and she inhabits the sensually awakened body of an older woman who rejects the conventions of aging and acts a bit like a teenager at times, but the film never judges her for her impish and impulsive behavior. Bright Days Ahead will, no doubt, find a female audience hungry for films that center around older (neither predatory nor suffering) women; women that seem like human beings more than stereotypes.
Though the film is less about the men in the story, Vernoux is fair in her treatment of masculinity. The young Julien is a womanizer, but he still doesn’t feel like a stereotype. We see pain in his eyes when Caroline dumps him at the airport. Though his story is not the center of the film, we know him as a computer teacher at a senior center who beds down every woman he meets. He loves sex, and he doesn’t apologize for that. He doesn’t suffer some sort of pathology and he is up-front about his desire. How refreshing that he too is not punished for his behavior, which is sometimes cruel and sometimes delightful. He brings pleasure to the women he is with and that brings him pleasure. Does it have to get anymore complicated than that?
Laurent Lafitte inhabits the skin of Julien, a man who desires and beds many women but isn’t labelled a sex addict. In one scene, Caroline teases him a little implying that he likes sex a bit too much, but he is who he is, and he never pretends to be something that he is not. A stupid and predictable narrative might have exposed him to be a horrid beast of a narcissist, or have had him discover that his mistress has had the better of him, but Bright Days Ahead avoids these pitfalls. Similarly, the husband, the cuckold, is not reduced to an infantile projection. His reaction to his wife’s affair is real. He is in real pain and he suffers anguish, anger and impulses that we can believe and quite understand.
Patrick Chesnais as Philippe is remarkable for his ability to underplay the role. He is a magnificent actor. He doesn’t quite know what to do or how to feel when his marriage seems to be spinning out of control. We get the distinct feeling that everything in the marriage was working well for his needs before his wife retired. He seems content with a wife who makes sure to plan a dinner and have the right wine on hand. His life is overturned when Caroline no longer acts as the perfect hostess. Chesnais captures the terror of being an aging man who fears that he can no longer satisfy his younger wife sexually (or in any other fashion) and he is both angered and saddened by her affair, but none of this erupts into the usual melodrama or forced callousness we see in the work of Michael Haneke and others who insist that all the bourgeois show their true vileness in such situations.
Vernoux avoids most of the cliché’s that older men usually exhibit. We genuinely feel empathy for Philippe, and we almost expect him to behave in a grotesque or physically abusive manner. Neither is Philippe a sap or a doormat; he is distinctly human and most of his pain is exhibited in his anguished face and his short verbal outbursts. He loves his wife very deeply and he will not allow a meaningless (if selfish and cruel) affair to erase the significance of their long and loving years together. By the end of Bright Days Ahead the couple appears to be trying to make another go of it, but things have changed between them. This is not necessarily a happy ending though many seem to see it that way. It is not so simple.
As a couple, they have much work to do; but this film is not a nihilistic screed against marriage and long-term relationships either. The last shot is a freeze-frame, and though usually freeze frames are poorly conceived cop-outs, here we are left with an image of the married couple experiencing a moment of joy together in the waves of the ever-changing sea, suggesting the reality of constant change. That freeze-frame is all we are left with here; the couple may end up together, or things may not work out between them. That is the state of every marriage, isn’t it? Bright Days Ahead leaves those looking for the decimation of marriage (as an institution) out in the cold, as much as it leaves those who insist on a happy ending unfulfilled, but I, for one, find this open-endedness deeply satisfying and realistic.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is a frequent contributor to Film International. For a complete list of her publications see her website.
Read also: Gary Kramer, “Bright Days Ahead – A Tribeca Interview”.