Bright Days Ahead is a notch better than both Le Week-end and The Face of Love.
All three of those films played at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and each explores the intersections of romantic love and aging. That both Weekend and Face have gotten modest theatrical runs outside of New York and Los Angeles while Days is only showing up on Video on Demand probably says more about Americans’ aversion to foreign language films than it does about our taste in melodramatic loves stories with protagonists pushing past middle age.
The setup is fairly simple: Caroline (Ardant) has just retired from private practice as a dentist. Her kids give her a membership in a community center to help her fill her days. Caroline has little interest in making bad pottery or learning rudimentary computer skills, but she does take a shine to Julien, an instructor at the center. Julien is a bit of a rake, and its hard to tell whether that is part of the attraction for Caroline or whether she is just bored and scared of being treated as though her life is already over. The affair that Caroline starts is one part recklessness and one part child-like curiosity. It’s almost as though she wonders whether or not something can still happen at her age.
Movies about adultery are a nickel a dozen with inflation, but the age factor makes this one seem relatively fresh. Another distinguishing factor is that the relationship between Caroline and her husband, Philippe, is more interesting than that of the lovers. The latter is well tread ground–mutual claims of non-possessiveness that grow into jealousy and pain. People of any age can claim that sex has no strings attached, but the reality is that intercourse breeds intimacy and intimacy binds us together in ways that hurt when we are torn asunder. The marriage though…Philippe is a maddening mix of weariness and reticence. His refusal to fight, however understandable, somehow makes Caroline look like the rejected party even though she is having the affair. Julien makes no claims to fidelity. Rather than trading one indifferent lover for a more a romantic one, Caroline simply acquires another relationship in which she feels disposable.
There is a gender reversal at work that also serves to defamiliarize the audience to a familiar situation. The loss of a career and the blow that it plays on a professional person’s identity has typically been played out through male characters, but as more women entered the workplace after World War II, it was inevitable that the retirement would become an emotional minefield for each sex. As audiences, we are perhaps still more comfortable with women as widows (Face of Love) or victims of their husbands’ crises (Le Week-end).
We (i.e. Americans) are also more interested in and comfortable with sex among the aging as a source of comedy. Perhaps the thing I liked best about Bright Days Ahead was its refusal to soften its tone to make its content more palatable. Caroline’s and Julien’s first passionate encounter is aborted, perhaps for lack of a condom that only one of them really cares about, and the subsequent shot of the outside of the car is the sort of visually bracing return to reality that we are not used to getting in cinematic love scenes. Caroline returns from an awkward encounter at Julien’s apartment to belatedly find the text message he had sent telling her not to come. Philippe chastises his wife not for breaking the marriage contract but for breaking the unwritten rules of discretion that society has put in place as its pallid counterfeit. Even the film’s title suggests a kind of bitterness laced with its irony.
And yet Bright Days Ahead is not an angry film so much as a deeply sad one. Did Caroline ever have bright days ahead? If so, when? And what went wrong? Or was every promise of future happiness always and ever a well meaning lie? In his classic meditation on Ecclesiastes, Reason for Being, Jacque Ellul suggests that this potent book of the Bible is about the way that we come to hate the things we put in God’s place for their inability to fill our hearts and souls and give meaning to our lives. Youth, work, marriage, family, even sex, are temporal, and as such provide an insufficient foundation on which to build a life that can keep at bay the pain caused by a glance over life’s horizon. For the young that pain may be a dull ache; for those for whom the horizon is nearer, the pain can be more acute.
Bright Days Ahead is based on a novel by Fanny Chesnel, but Caroline’s ennui is more reminiscent of a hero in a Cheever story than a Chopin or Flaubert novel. The recent popularity of Mad Men has shown there is a deep empathy for characters who see the futility of pleasure pursuits and yet have no viable alternatives to give their lives meaning. All that no doubt makes the film sound heavier and more of a downer than it comes across. Caroline is no Prufrock–her demise isn’t imminent enough to make her feel despair. But it is close enough to make us understand her discomfort and wonder how much of her acting out is simply the middle-aged clinging to the carpe diem life preserver that no longer seems quite so buoyant.