Early on in Bright Days Ahead, sexagenarian ex-dentist Caroline (Fanny Ardant) finds it impossible to fake laughter during an improv exercise at a seniors’ club, but just a few scenes later, she’s all smiles. That’s because Caroline has begun a passionate but clandestine affair with Julien (Laurent Lafitte), a sexy fortysomething computer instructor who picked her up by complaining of tooth pain—a truly adorable meet-cute, except that Caroline happens to be happily married. Or maybe not so happily: The tension of this feature from French director Marion Vernoux lies in whether Caroline’s dalliance with a man 20 years her junior is just an impulsive—and possibly destructive—attempt at reclaiming her youth, or an empowered move by a bored woman determined to take back her life.
It’s a good joke that another character mistakes Caroline for a movie star early on, since Ardant has one of those back-then-we-had-faces mugs that suggests a life spent on the silver screen. The directors who’ve used her recently, from Tsai Ming-Liang to Paolo Sorrentino (who had her play herself in The Great Beauty) have exploited this iconic quality for all it’s worth. Ardant’s luminousness arguably confuses the issue in Bright Days Ahead, in that it implies that this kind of late-middle-age fling is an option open only to genetic marvels, but Vernoux resists shooting her star too adoringly. Ardant is also well-matched with Lafitte, whose shifty smile marks him as an inveterate seducer: His easy appeal raises the question of whether Julien is carrying on with Caroline because she turns him on, or he’s just after another unique experience to add to his collection.
In both its narrative outline and its smoothly intimate shooting style, Bright Days Ahead recalls Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz—a version where Michelle Williams’ protagonist stuck with her marriage for 40 years and emptied her nest before getting restless. The difference is that where Polley’s film felt truly risky, and even downright embarrassing at times, Bright Days Ahead is oddly becalmed from beginning to end. Scenes between Caroline and her initially uncomprehending husband Philippe (a fine Patrick Chesnais) that should be hair-raisingly tense are instead even-keeled, which, while perhaps a testament to the director’s resistance of melodrama, keeps the film’s energy level a shade too low. It also doesn’t help that the big themes in the script are italicized early and often (“We’re listing things that make us think of our mortal condition” explains one oldster to another on a windswept group field trip), or that the humor is frequently lame and crowd-pleasing. Bright Days Ahead means to be a casual, charming movie about a woman taking charge of her life, but its lightness gets unbearable; the film is so featherweight that it eventually blows away.