Fanny Ardant and Laurent Lafitte star in “Bright Days Ahead.” Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tribeca Film

Consider the ingredients: smoking, walks in the rain or along the beach (whichever is handy), much drinking and discussion of wine, and a sudden flirtation between an older woman and a younger man. The result: another French movie, n’est ce’pas? If that’s what came to your mind, you’re right, of course. The only difference is the woman is actress Fanny Ardant and that makes all the difference.

Bright Days Ahead (Les beaux jours), directed by Marion Vernoux, is a Spotlight entry at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival that should please quite a number of baby-boomers on both sides of the pond. Even with happy unions, the possibility of a last fling before the twilight years descend can be tempting. And even if the act of discretion itself is only witnessed in the darkness of a movie theatre, sometimes even that can be enough to satisfy our longings.

Director Vernoux presents us with a fairly straightforward dilemma. Caroline (Ardant) is a recently retired dentist, who must now find ways to fill her free hours. She complains at one point that everyone believes if “you have time to give, you should give it. I want to take time for myself. Learn to do nothing.” But at the Bright Days Ahead retirement classes, doing nothing is hardly an option. One of the earliest scenes in the film shows her confronted by a pushy acting instructor who coerces her into releasing her tensions by some form of primal laughter. The whole episode is so exhausting and intimidating for this professional woman, we can hardly blame her when she walks out of the exercise.

But this is Ardant, after all, and she’s not about to give up. It’s in a computer class that she meets the instructor, a down-to-earth, hands-on kind of guy, with just the type of brooding good looks to capture her attention. As played by Laurent Lafitte, this is one instructor who sees nothing amiss about putting the moves on a woman, even one who is 20-some years older, if he finds her desirable. His animal instincts are spot-on, but how to begin the chase?

Fortunately for our teacher, he’s suffering from an inflamed molar and his object of desire just happens to be a very competent dentist. Though retired from the practice she’s shared with her husband (Patrick Chesnais), Caroline decides to take on one last patient. He recovers quite nicely, and in no time at all, their incipient passion reaches a fever pitch. Their mutual groping is insistent, even adolescent in its intensity, with little concern for the consequences.

Is this plausible, you might ask, and does it really matter? Perhaps in the hands of a less experienced director, we might feel our suspension of disbelief stretched to the breaking point. Does a mature professional woman, to all intents and purposes comfortably married — the mother of two daughters in their 30s and a grandmother to boot — and easily recognized in her small seaside community of Calais, risk everything for an amorous, sure-to-be short-lived fling?

Well, in this case, yes. Any suspicions to the contrary are quelled by the star herself. Vernoux has allowed her camera to dwell frequently and unapologetically on Ardant’s face. And what a face! There’s a magnetism and depth to this actress audiences may remember from 8 Women and Confidentially Yours that has only grown more resonant with time, not unlike her compatriot Catherine Deneuve. She is capable of withholding the passion that smolders underneath when the moment requires it, but she is just as capable of releasing it with split-second timing, whether cavorting in the surf or in her lover’s embrace. Headstrong, imperfect — her character takes up smoking again and drinks the wine she knows so well at a wine tasting, rather than spitting it back in the bucket — she will have her day.

This particular brand of insouciance, the devil-may-care ability to turn tragedy on its head, is a quality Ardant shares with legendary filmmaker François Truffaut (1932-1984), creator of such classics as Jules and Jim (1962) and The 400 Blows (1959), among many others. A former husband and father of one of her three daughters, perhaps a bit of his Gallic fortitude rubbed off on her own approach to a character.

And what about the husband who goes about his daily life in the midst of whatever suspicions he might have about his wife’s dalliances? We sense he’s grown a little too comfortable in his marriage. There are flashes of dialogue that sparkle with insight. When he asks her, “Have you looked at yourself?” she replies, “No, he’s the one who looks at me.”

It might be easy to write off the husband’s character as an ineffectual cuckold if he weren’t so sensitively portrayed by Chesnais (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). It’s a quiet, bemused portrayal — an older, wizened spouse who knows what’s worth saving and what’s worth relinquishing.

Vernoux is no novice as a director, with Personne ne m’aime (Nobody Loves Me, 1994) and Rien a faire (Nothing To Do, 1999) to her credit. American audiences may be familiar with her work as a screenwriter on Pacific Palisades. With Bright Days Ahead, she has shown an ease of navigation with her actors, not only achieving a mercurial performance from her star but manipulating a stable of supporting players. That’s particularly important in this case, where the screenplay itself (by Vernoux and Fanny Chesnel) sometimes ambles along as if the onlookers need only to enjoy another winsome walk on the beach with Ardant to keep them content.

At times, these visual metaphors can feel arbitrarily dropped into the plot — children at seaside with their kites, a male horseback rider in the sand, even Caroline girlishly enjoying herself in a backyard swing. Is all of this trying to convey our protagonist’s need for freedom, a sense of weightlessness? No doubt. Is it cliché-ridden? It probably is. But these are small complaints. The director obviously feels totally justified in letting her story unravel at its own pace, laying clues along the way to make sure we know what her main character really wants — a breath of freedom, however brief.

It would be cheating to reveal how this late-in-life romance resolves itself. Suffice it to say that the whole business ends on a beautifully graceful note, with the promise of future days if not brighter, at least wiser.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

“Bright Days Ahead” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival (April 16-27) this past week. The film can be seen on the following dates: Tuesday, 4/22 at 4 p.m. at AMC Loews Village 7 (AV7); Thursday, 4/24 at 8:30 p.m. at Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea 9 (BTC9). For information about the film as well as where to purchase tickets, please click here.

Video courtesy of Tribeca Film.

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