Baby boomers are retiring in droves now, with plenty of disposable income to spend on movies. This might be the reason that in the past couple years I’ve reviewed at least a half-dozen features (and seen at least that many outside work) about middle-class characters in their 60s who reevaluate their lives after retiring or losing touch with their grown children. The crisis of how to spend one’s twilight years has inspired Hollywood comedies (the Meryl Streep-Tommy Lee Jones rom-com Hope Springs, the Billy Crystal atrocity Parental Guidance), indie fare (Old Goats), and European art movies (Le Week-End, On My Way). Consistent across these films is an underlying optimism that people can still evolve and find happiness after 60, as well as a sense of complacency about middle-class life. The characters rarely have to worry about money, which makes the issue of self-actualization relatively simple. Whatever the virtues of these films, they’re generally devoid of suspense.
Sebastian Lelio’s Chilean drama Gloria is the chief exception and likely the best movie of this current wave. Of all the recent sixtysomething protagonists, Lelio’s heroine comes closest to going off the deep end in her quest for satisfaction; the movie has a wonderful nervous energy, making palpable the longing for youth that the other films only describe. Bright Days Ahead, a recent vehicle for French star Fanny Ardant, taps into a similar energy and even critiques the conventions of this burgeoning genre, though ultimately the film is undone by the same sort of complacency that sinks most of the others.
Ardant plays a recently retired dentist still grieving for her best friend, who’s been dead for five months now. To lift her spirits, her husband and grown daughters enroll her in classes at the local senior center, Bright Days. Director Marion Vernoux and cowriters Fanny Chesnel and Marc Syrigas (adapting a novel by Chesnel) score some funny satirical jabs in their depiction of the adult education courses; in the classrooms the retirees revert to their high school selves, indulging in petty gossip and paying little attention to their instructors. As though acting on an adolescent whim, Ardant’s character embarks on a love affair with one of her teachers, played by Laurent Lafitte, and soon they’re sneaking out of class to have quickies in the boiler room. This affair comes to dominate her life, not because it’s especially fulfilling but because she has little else to do.
The affair is emphatically low-stakes—the lover is a pot-smoking loser who, at 40, still lives like a college freshman. This would suggest another poke at the characters’ immaturity, yet Vernoux presents the heroine’s ensuing crisis of confidence (and its everything-will-be-OK resolution) with a straight face. The movie begins as a painful comedy like Gloria but concludes as a pat, feel-good sitcom more reminiscent of Hope Springs. Ardant might wrestle with alienation, but Bright Days Ahead never risks alienating its self-satisfied target audience.