Now in her mid-60s, French actress Fanny Ardant’s sex appeal and charisma are just as potent as ever. And in Marion Vernoux’s Bright Days Ahead, Ardant radiates as a woman who finds herself entangled in a torrid affair with her much younger computer teacher (played by Laurent Lafitte). Known best for her roles in such films as Francois Truffaut’s The Woman Next Door or Confidently Yours, over three decades later she brings a sultry bite of life into the character of Caroline, who despite having a loving husband (Patrick Chesnais) and fulfilling life, has an appetite for intensity, and when her daughters give her a membership to a local senior’s center after her retirement, finds that the next phase of her life may close the door on the past. As a subtle drama that questions our identity as we age and how our desire grows as we do, Vernoux’s latest feature offers a fresh examination of a woman embracing the future without fear.
Last week during the Tribeca Film Festival, I sat down with Ardant and Vernoux to chat about everything from following desire like a dog in the forest to Ardant’s love for the Batman trilogy.
What about the novel did you connect with think would make for a good cinematic adaptation?
Marion Vernoux: For this film, it was the producer who came to me and asked me if I would be interested in working on it. I did the first reading of it and thought, well, why did they come to me, what were they looking for? When you approach a project like this, you have to really live with it for a year or two or sometimes three, but on my second reading of it, something really clicked for me and I realized that I could do it and would do it and what approach I would take. What clicked for me was the idea of the character of Caroline as projection, both in terms of what you’re seeing of her on the screen but also as a projection of something that could possibly happen in the future.
Fanny, what attracted you to the story and the character of Caroline?
Fanny Ardant: When I first read the script, I loved the story and I loved the part of Caroline. So after I met Marion and two or three things that she told me about, I loved it. I love this kind of trio between husband and lover, and I loved the itinerary of this lady. So it’s always a very mysterious the reasons why you accept to act a part—instead of when you refuse it, that’s very clear. But when you accept it, you feel that you are going to happy and that is going to be great for you.
Caroline was a very layered and interesting woman—how did you and Fanny work together to take the person she was in the novel and bring her to life?
MV: From the very first meeting I had with Fanny, I saw that we were really on the same page with this character. We never had any kind of misunderstanding, and we were very frank about our opinions about her and what she was going to be like. This very frankness and openness about the character was something that saved us a lot of time in the process when we were making the film. With the complexity of Caroline, it was something that we both found exactly the same words to describe her. We were thinking of her appetite, her fantasies, her pride, her sometimes very bad character, but we were always on the same wavelength with this.
Usually, at least in American cinema, we see this kind of story from a male perspective. Fanny, was it enticing to you to tell to show the flip side of that explore a woman who isn’t afraid of getting older and embracing the new life around her?
FA: It’s not such a big deal to have a younger lover. For me, the beginning of the story was very interesting because it was the end of another story. Now we’re seeing what she is going to do with this new life—is she going to cry and say, oh I’m old and retired and everything is finished for me? It depends on what character you have, and the character of Caroline is strong. She loves life even if she’s become older and she’s not afraid of becoming old. She doesn’t want to be a victim and she fights to have an intense life. Even if society says, how to stay sexy until 90, she doesn’t care about it. She’s open to life because life has more imagination than us. So suddenly, not only did she find a sexual affair, but she found friends. She’s able to share wine and speak about life, and feel like life is coming back. Caroline has a real life, she’s not a desperate woman. She had a good job, she was a good dentist, she decided by her self to stop, and she had a good husband, which we see from the first scene. We see these electric feelings between them always, he’s not boring bourgeois. She has two daughters, she had grandchildren, she has a beautiful house, she had everything, but sometimes the only thing that she needs in intensity.
Fanny, having worked with so many wonderful and iconic filmmakers and actors, as well as being on the other side of the camera yourself, how do you go about selecting the films you want to work on?
FA: I always read the scripts that people send me. I never pass through agents, I don’t trust them. But there are all kind of stories you can receive. For me, I’m not so professional, I follow my desire like a dog in the forest. I’m not at all a strategic woman. Life is short and it’s better to do this job that I love, doing parts that I love. So when you ask me how I choose, I am chosen! And I decide to say yes.
Between Fanny, Patrick Chesnais, Marie Rivière, and Laurent Lafitte, you have such a seasoned cast. How did you go about founding out the other characters?
MV: For Patrick — I really wanted to work with him for a long time, so when I sent him the script he just said, “Who else but me could do this part?” So that was it. For Julien, it was a little bit more difficult because I wanted to find someone that would be able to play on an equal level. I didn’t want someone who would be a little guy and overwhelmed with all this. He’s not going to be this shrinking little—
FA: [mimes] Mama, help!
MV: Boy. Fanny is such a strong character, I had to find someone who wouldn’t be this shrinking violet. So that was the trick in casting that part. Laurent is a member of the Comédie Française, so he plays a lot of different kinds of roles and he knows how to put himself into the part.
How was the experience of shooting the very intimate sex scenes?
FA: As Marion said in the beginning, we had very open conversations about all things in the film. So it was choreographed and it was precise. And I feel very well with my husband and with Julien and they had a good sense of humor. Love scenes are sometimes embarrassing, but if you’re in front of a clever man or a man with good feelings, it’s good.
What do you find is the biggest difference between French and American cinema right now?
MV: Maybe I was lucky, but the three last movies I saw from the United States were great. It was The Grand Budapest Hotel, Dallas Buyer’s Club and a movie about robbers but I can’t remember the title. I was glad because it’s been a long time since I saw good movies from the United States and I feel like it’s coming back—just for me. And in France, this year was a very good year for French women directors. So maybe this is the main difference, that we have so many women directing films in France.
FA: Obviously I never go to see the big machine movies from America. But I must say that I love very much the trilogy of Batman. I think it’s beautiful. If you see the three, it all makes sense—but you have to see the three. I also loved Prisoners, Blue Jasmine, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. America is so big that you always have the opportunity to see movies, but I see more of the underground movies. I also loved The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street. So when American cinema arrives to Paris you have a lot of opportunity.