Retiring to Bed, by Sarah Brinks
In Act 3, scene 4 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet tells his mother,“You cannot call it love for at your age the hey-day in the blood is tame.” Today’s booming market for erectile dysfunction pharmaceuticals alone proves the Bard wrong on that account. People are living longer then ever these days, which means that the way we deal with aging is changing. Bright Days Ahead is about that difficult transition from being a working professional to being retired, and the ripples that create across all the relationships in your life.
Caroline (Fanny Ardant) figures out the hard way after only three months of retirement from a successful career as a dentist that this stage is a whole new ballgame. Her daughters get her a trial membership to a senior center, politely referred to as “the club,” named Bright Days Ahead. After an embarrassing display at an acting class, Caroline is ready to quit, but she and her husband are struggling with their computers’ internet connection at home. So Caroline goes back to Bright Days Ahead to take a computer class. The teacher of the class is a handsome man in his mid-thirties named Julien. Julien loves women, and he notices Caroline right away. He is having some tooth pain and asks her for her help. After she helps him with his teeth, they become friends, then lovers.
I think what works so well in Bright Days Ahead is the organic way things happen around Caroline. The affair is messy and awkward at first, and so are her experiences at Bright Days Ahead. She has to figure out how she fits in to this new life. You also learn about the characters in an organic way. It is mentioned a few times that a friend had died and that Caroline had retired suddenly; it isn’t until later in the film when the lovers are having pillow talk that you learn the full story. Bright Days Ahead is based on a novel by Fanny Chesnel, Une Jeune Fille Aux Cheveux Blancs, that roughly translates to “The Young Girl With White Hair.” It is a credit to Chesnel (who also co-wrote the screenplay) and the other screenwriters (Marion Vernoux and Marc Syrigas) that all the characters feel well rounded and real. The people at the club aren’t just filler, they have personalities and secrets and stories.
Caroline and Julien set up some basic rules to make the affair work for them. Julien won’t tell her about the other women in his life, they only make love with the lights off, and they never display affection in public. Even with those rules in place, there are some rocky spots. The almost-thirty-year gap in their ages rears its ugly head in some interesting and subtle ways. Caroline smokes marijuana for the first time with Julien, and she takes up smoking cigarettes again. Her affair makes her late for things like picking up her grandson from school. She also has to do a lot of clever lying to her family, strangers, and members of the club. One subtle way we see the difference between them is through technology. Caroline has a flip-phone and her texts are in full sentence; while Julien has an iPhone and his texts are in “textese” and emoticons.
The film takes place mostly in Dunkirk, France, a seaside town with a lot of bridges and cruise ships going in and out. The nature of where they live helps to promote a sense of isolation and loneliness. The ocean becomes a place of joy, honesty, and happiness. Even though it is a tremendous barrier, it is also a place for children to play, lovers to splash, and a group of retirees to play in the waves.
Director Marion Vernoux wrings intimate moments and get realistic performances from her actors. All the performances are strong; especially Ardant’s as Caroline. There is a wonderful scene when Caroline and her husband are trying to reboot their internet router, and they fall into these lovely patterns that people who have spent most of their loves together do. Moments like that are in contrast to the newness of the affair and scenes where Caroline and Julien are learning each others stories.
I think Bright Days Ahead will resonate with people who are nearing or in retirement, but people of all ages can appreciate it as a good film with a good story and strong acting. The subtitles are clear and easy to follow, although sometimes they are a little quick to leave the screen.