Caroline, the protagonist of “Bright Days Ahead,” is having something of a crisis. At 60, it’s more late-life than mid-life, but she has just been forced to retire from her job as a small-town dentist after telling off a patient, in colorful language. (She’s French, and played by the lovely Fanny Ardant, so, really, how bad could it have been?)
Trying to fill her time at the local senior enrichment center that lends the film its title, our heroine soon meets — and almost immediately begins a torrid affair with — her computer instructor, Julien (Laurent Lafitte), a handsome lady killer in his 30s. Julien, as it turns out, had a couple of cavities filled by Caroline when he was 12 or 13, which lends the film a slightly creepy vibe.
This is not a love story. At least not in the way you might think.
Based on Fanny Chesnel’s 2011 novel “Une Jeune Fille aux Cheveux Blancs” (“A Girl With White Hair”), the film by Marion Vernoux isn’t quite “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” but it’s close. What precipitates Caroline’s misbehavior isn’t a bad relationship — her husband, Philippe (Patrick Chesnais), is faithful, loving and attentive — but her own mortality. Five months before the action of the film, we’re told, Caroline lost her best friend to cancer.
So the tryst with Julien is an attempt to recapture lost youth, even if the whole town, including Philippe, eventually knows about it. Set in a pretty seaside community, “Bright Days Ahead” includes lots of shots of Caroline walking on the beach. If nothing else, it makes moodiness look amazing.
Yet as embarrassing as Caroline’s actions are to her husband, their two grown daughters and the neighbors, Ardant makes them understandable, even forgivable. Unfortunately, Philippe’s pain is also quite palpable. Chesnais beautifully evokes the poignant sting of undeserved rejection. There are no villains here, including Caroline. The three leads bring all kinds of nuance to their roles.
But is that enough?
The theme of aging — gracelessly or otherwise — is a rich and worthy one. But there’s a superficiality to this tale that, in the end, is less than wholly satisfying. Unlike the adult education center in which it’s set — a facility offering classes in acting, ceramics, wine tasting, etc. — nobody pays for the lessons that are learned. Dramatically speaking, the film lets its characters off too easily.
What’s missing here isn’t exactly judgment or moral censure, but an acknowledgment of the compromises and concessions that are constantly being made in life. As the title implies, “Bright Days Ahead” has a happy ending, but it gives short shrift to the dark clouds that sometimes pass, and their irreparable damage.
★ ★ ½
Unrated. At the Avalon. Contains obscenity, sex, nudity and drug references. In French with subtitles. 98 minutes.