By Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

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.

Fanny ArdantThere 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.

Bright Days Ahead 3When 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.

ddFor 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.

Bright Days Ahead 1For 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.

Bright Days 3Patrick 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.

Bright_704As 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”.

17 thoughts on “Female Sexual Pleasure Unpunished in Bright Days Ahead

  1. What a great article, not just for the review! I hadn’t heard of the film but I intend to seek it out. Sounds like it’s far more realistic with it not giving what the audience would expect or want based on what is often assumed of older women, and that’s what is appealing to me. The real, actual human side of a woman and her mind, (in this case, an older married woman) without all the ASSUMED drama. It’s about time! (sounds like the same with the other characters as well… more realistic!)

    I had to laugh at your “of a certain age” comments because you couldn’t be more accurate. I hear similar things myself, being WELL past forty, (and refuse to disappear) but just hearing it in general about any women on the planet is annoying. I also notice as soon as a woman hits 40 they’re (we’re) immediately dubbed a “Cougar”, even when majority of the slang definition doesn’t fit the woman, but the age part of it is used as a label.
    But anyway… oh yes, I am definitely seeking out this film! Thanks for bringing it to people’s attention.

  2. Thanks, Kyra. I sorta went off on a rant here, but all those web slideshows that show how fantabulous older women look: “Stunning at fifty,” “She can’t Be 40!,””How Does She do it?” These so-called “compliments” are really backhanded insults; they imply that a woman who dares to go in public looking anything other than teenager is a horrid old crone, and anybody who looks great over 30 is some sort of a freak of Nature…And can we put that phrase “of a certain age” to death, please? Do older women need a euphemism? Why? Euphemisms are for tiptoeing around unpleasant things like dead people.
    We are not dead, people.

    Yeah- the cougar thing implies that the only way women ever find love is to stalk our prey. I guess because we are such ghastly old crones. HA HA. What vicious crazy stereotypes…It is nice to see a film avoid these so effortlessly.

    I probably should have talked here a bit more about the humor in the film, but I didn’t want to spoil it….it has some very good dark humor that I think you’ll find funny and some engaging and realistic drama, but it simply doesn’t go where you expect, which is so refreshing. To be honest, I went in expecting silly fluff and was pleasantly surprised…. It is more realistic, and yet it makes room for fantasy and humor.

    Thanks for writing in and refusing to disappear!

  3. Those slideshows – they are EVERYWHERE. I can’t look at a news piece on my phone app without seeing a link to one of them… almost always about female celebrities and their looks or age. But absolutely, what you say here is just so true. I try my best just to smile and keep my comments to myself if I get one of those backhanded compliments you mention (sometimes the “freak of nature” ones too) but doesn’t always work and they usually get some variation of “perhaps if I wore my rotting corpse outfit, you would be less shocked?” I’ve gotten some “I’ll be dead when I hit your age!” type comments when my age is revealed and I’m apparently nowhere near what they thought. Thank you… how kind of you to imply I should be dead. How DARE I leave my cushy coffin bed and venture out into the world!

    Ah, people. Gotta love ‘em. (from a great distance!)

    I’m definitely glad the film avoids those ridiculous stereotypes. I saw it’s available on VOD (good, I thought I was stuck waiting on a dvd) so I’ll be checking it out as soon as time permits. I love dark humor, so that’s an added bonus! Honestly, if I’d read about this film anywhere else, I’d have assumed it was fluff as well and probably would have ignored it, but you give very honest reviews that absolutely makes a film worth a look!

  4. Great review Gwen! I absolutely love Fanny A. And, as a feminist and a woman now over 50, she is a particular icon for me! I love her smokey voice and no-nonsense attitude. She definitely exudes confidence and commands notice when in a room. These are also two things I aspire to do and also teach to my female students as necessary qualities for women to have in order to survive in a patriarchal world.
    All the best,
    Valerie Orlando
    Professor, University of Maryland

  5. You made me laugh so hard!

    “Thank you… how kind of you to imply I should be dead. How DARE I leave my cushy coffin bed and venture out into the world!”

    Nothing like those “compliments.” “50? My GOD! You don’t look like the CRYPT KEEPER!!”

    I mean why does any of this surface stuff even MATTER? As if women have nothing better to do than obsess about looks as “use-value” in our consumer culture…..As if what is inside our HEARTS or MINDS is of no value whatsoever.

  6. Thanks Valerie!

    I agree. Our female students are taught that they are only valued by their figures. They are literally bombarded with messages that tell them to literally take up less space. I love Fanny as she is not at all afraid to “take up space” in all senses of the phrase. She has attitude. Ardant seems even more confidant and fierce as she gets older, and thus more beautiful. Smarts and a twisted sense of humor are what make people “beautiful,” to me.

  7. Hehe. Perhaps I’ll dress as the crypt keeper for Halloween this year. Just to make a point.
    Would definitely be nice to have conversations with people about what we’re thinking or feeling, instead of answering ridiculous questions about what we use, did we have surgery, etc, etc. I believe it was an interview with Emma Thompson where they asked nothing of importance – just questions about her looks, etc… and there was an actual “wow, what do you eat?!?!?!” question and Thompson answered with an “Umm… FOOD!” “Really?” was the interviewer’s reply… looking genuinely shocked by this answer! (that “really?” cracks me up. What was she expecting for an answer?)

  8. Emma Thompson strikes me as very smart and funny! I do note that the person interviewing her and asking her such insulting and ridiculous questions is a woman. That is something I want to look into more; how women ‘patrol’ other women- in terms of food, body type, beauty myths, age appropriate behavior, clothing; all sorts of factors that perpetuate and uphold patriarchy.

    It is an uncomfortable issue, but maybe that is why I am drawn to it.

    I am really interested in how women are brainwashed into a worldview that puts limits on all women, and even worse, appears to legitimize women’s casual subjugation of other women.

    Why do some female critics, for example, so often ape their male peers and casually dismiss female-centered stories as unimportant, trivial, sentimental or too melodramatic? On a broader scale, who died and left some women In charge of other women? On a smaller scale, we can see it in this film in the catty behavior of the women who are very uncomfortable with the strength and intelligence of Caroline…. the women who regard her as “well-preserved,’ and clearly despise her for her independence, sexual and otherwise….That fascinates me. Patriarchy is fantastic at perpetuating itself systemically if it has women doing the job of maintaining it.

    I do have to chuckle though at Emma’s answer though. Yes, Emma Thompson eats food. What is the correct answer? “Vegan Pellets?” “Air?”

    Thanks for your funny and perceptive remarks, Kyra!

  9. Thompson seems the same to me. I like her.

    It’s an uncomfortable issue indeed, and the factors involved could be endless. (aside from the obvious upbringing, media, etc.) I’d like to say it’s gotten better over the decades, but really… it hasn’t. In fact, I’d say it’s far worse since the “social media” popularity. Just seems to perpetuate the problem more than anything. (granted, not 100% of the time, as you always see someone trying to squash, or draw attention to, an issue, but unfortunately it’s not seen due to either not having a “hot selfie” on their profile, or folks are too busy only paying attention to gaining the most “friends or followers”, and nothing else)

    Thompson has Venusian berry juices Fed-Ex’d to her from Venus. Shhh… don’t tell anyone.

    My pleasure… Thanks for introducing me to this film! I’ll be attempting to watch it this weekend off of Amazon.

  10. Bright Days Ahead is a movie that needs some spotlight because of its script and the wonderful acting of Fanny Ardant. It feels good to see a movie about an older woman that is having an affair with a younger man (and not the other way around) and where the director doesn’t feel the need to somehow “punish” this behavior.

  11. I love the title of this “Bright Days Ahead” review. You’ve said it all right there in the first line, Gwendolyn! How many films are there glorifying an older man’s pursuit of a younger woman? It’s nice to see the female lead exploring and indulging her own sexual pleasure! Amen.

  12. So many great foreign films get such limited distribution. I am glad to see that Bright Days Ahead at least made it to arthouses in the US and it’s on pay per view and finding an audience There is so little decent programming for women that one really has to search very hard for the few films that do not insult our intelligence, much less films that we actually find pleasurable. Furthermore, young women and girls are dumbed down and Stepfordized by myriad sexist comic book films and insipid infantile animated fairy tales at the multiplex. It is worse than the fifties, I think. Industry-wide suppression and severely limited distribution of thoughtful and intelligent films is nothing short of cultural deprivation. I think it fosters an atmosphere that routinely devalues women.

    Sexism and misogyny is alive and well, but it goes largely unnoticed and seems to be increasingly accepted by mass culture. (Have you seen those offensive & demeaning ads of women as puppets in lingerie for direct tv? Where is the response? Where is the outrage? There isn’t any.)

    We are assaulted with images of women as dead bodies, victims in peril, etc. and there is a distinct lack of images of women outside the role of victim or white fairy princess of privilege. When a film comes along and breaks the mold, I feel compelled to pass it on…

    Thanks Danielle and Annie Marie, for writing in…

  13. I agree, Don. It is a strong ending because it is not clear-cut. It is clear that these two people really love one another deeply and they are trying to make a go of it after difficult times. That just seems a lot more honest than most movie endings. It avoids being sappy and unrealistically happy, and yet it doesn’t go for the usual downbeat ending. It is something else entirely.

  14. Thank you Anna! I really appreciate your interviews with female directors too. I have been thinking of putting together a Do It Yourself at-home film festival highlighting many terrific sleepers (mostly directed by women) found on pay per view – but I have been swamped lately! I would include Clutter, Concussion, White Reindeer, A Teacher, Hemel, Klip,The Bling Ring, Bluebeard, Love Like Poison, Almayer’s Folly, and so many other films.

    I hope to get to this project one of these days!

    I am also terribly curious about the films of Joanna Hogg of the UK. She has several films finally getting a release in the US, including one that stars Viv Albertine of The Slits (!), entitled Exhibition. Naturally, I am absolutely dying to see the new Catherine Breillat film, Abuse of Weakness — with Isabelle Huppert! So many films, so little time!

    Thanks so much for your interviews!

  15. Great article here. I appreciate it on multiple levels. The funny thing is it is so well written that the main points aren’t even the things that really stood out to me here. The first thing is that it brought to light something I actually hadn’t thought of and changed my view on what women over 40 go through in the lens of society.

    The second thing is that I loved the fact that you focused on the details even more than the generic main themes. Reading this is like drinking wine in a fine glass. The glass takes a good wine that was created with everything the maker designed and lets you get more out of it. Thanks for your insights.

  16. Thanks much Ross. Yeah – We live in a world in which even Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence are seen by Hollywood execs as “too old,” and, for example, the lovely and talented Heather Graham and Charlize Theron are viewed as old crones. It is unfortunate and it sends a horrific message out to women.

    I think perhaps France is less harsh than Hollywood, thank goodness. Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Emmanuelle Béart, Ludivine Sagnier, Sandrine Bonnaire and Catherine Deneuve seem even more beautiful as they age and the French appear to VALUE older actresses, and offer them opportunities to work. French women continue to grace the silver screen and their performances get better and better as they age.

    By Hollywood standards, I suppose many of my college students are “too old.”
    But of course it was not always this way. Once upon a time, Hollywood made films for adults– and women such as Bette Davis, Kim Novak, Lauren Bacall, and so many others carved out lengthy careers. Ah well, at least we can enjoy their performances today on Turner Classics!

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