The French legend takes hold of the screen with a screen performance so vibrant that there might as well be no one else in the film.
Bright Days AheadDirector: Marion Vernoux
Cast: Fanny Ardant, Laurent Lafitte, Patrick Chesnais
Fanny Ardant is even taller than she looks in the movies. Sitting with her long legs crossed, her pencil skirt and sheer black shirt make her look like one of the femme fatales she’s become notorious for playing, and as she speaks in French to Marion Vernoux (who directed her in Bright Days Ahead) they sound as if they’re plotting something positively sinful. She turns towards me, smiles, extends her hand towards me and softly says “oh, we’re just talking about food”. In Bright Days Ahead, Ardant plays Caroline, a recently retired dentist who finds herself torn between her love for her husband Philippe (Patrick Chesnais) and her much younger lover (Laurent Lafitte), a computer instructor she met at the center for senior citizens her daughters want her to spend her free time in.
Taming down the same sensuality she’s showed in films like Confidentially Yours, Callas Forever and 8 Women, Ardant takes hold of the screen with a screen performance so vibrant that there might as well be no one else in the film, because she’s all we see. She received a César nomination for Best Actress for the role, and as the film debuts Stateside, it’s only fair to keep her in mind for year end awards, as she certainly delivers one of the most indelible performances of the year.
We sat down with the legendary Ardant and director Verdoux to talk about they came to work together, how the actress felt about donning a blonde hairstyle and the literary obsession that is making her want to stay in bed...
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Can you talk about how you developed the chemistry with your leading men?
Fanny Ardant: As you said chemistry, you have to feel it, so I let myself go...They are very good actors too, so for me you never dance well alone, to dance well you need a good partner. You see how this worked in different scenes, in the ones with Chesnais you can see I love my husband I feel protected and with my lover I feel the desire to love, to joke, so they were different kinds of feelings, both with the part and with the human beings playing the characters..
The last thing one would think of is seeing Fanny Ardant in a nursing home. How did you choose her for this part?
Marion Vernoux: I don’t write movies for actors, because I want to feel free when I write. For the reason you tell I think Fanny was the best choice, you don’t have a specific idea of who she is, she likes to play characters, if the character is drunk, she’s drunk, if the character is in pain she feels it. The first time I saw Fanny in real life she appeared to me as Fanny, not an icon. From our very first meeting, she showed up on time, seemed simple and was very curious about what I had to say. Working with her was a gift, because you don’t have to fight Fanny, she goes there with you.
Caroline’s look is a very important part of the character. She has this light blonde hair, subdued wardrobe in earthy tones...how important was the look when it came to developing the character?
Fanny: I remember the day when Marion and the costume designer decided what my look would be, I realized I didn’t love anything and wouldn’t wear anything in my real life but it was a great opportunity to be another woman, we decided because of the French title of the novel (Une jeune fille aux cheveau blancs, “the girl with the white hair”) we would try the white hair, so we did some tests and when I had white hair it was very sophisticated, so we decided to do blonde because it took away her strength. If I’d done black hair there would’ve been that cliché of the earthy, strong woman. Marion also asked me to speak quick and high, not with my low voice, because Caroline is a provincial woman. I think to do a part you start with the artificial things - is she wearing high heels, jewelry - step by step you build the character with exterior things, afterwards comes the interior, which still remains a mystery to me.
Marion, you co-wrote Venus Beauty Institute in which we also have a case of women who are “romantics” who realize they don’t need men to fulfill their idea of romance, something repeated in this film. What draws you to these characters?
Marion: When I co-wrote Venus I was very young so maybe I was projecting myself on the characters, but what you say it’s true, at the end of the story, the character has to be liberated, because why tell a story otherwise? In the case of Bright Days Ahead, we have a more mature idea of romance.
I also asked because I have read Fanny describe herself as a “romantic by nature”. Is this something that also attracted you to this part?
Fanny: For me to be a romantic, the only thing important in life is love, in all its expressions. Not only love from a lover...for me the idea of cinema and life are very similar, I never accept a part where my character is only ambitious or cold, I have a feeling that in life you have to go through many stages, like waiting for love, crying for love, saying goodbye to love, or “good morning love” (laughs), I always judge people based on their love stories, never for their money or power.
Caroline has to come up with lies all the time, which Fanny makes feel very natural, can you talk about the liberties you give actors with the screenplay, are you interested in improvisation or are you very strict?
Marion: No, I’m very strict (laughs). I think what’s always fascinated me with actors, their capacity for creation and invention, and how that ability to invent comes through when they are being strict, when they are playing the part as written. Their creativity comes through, because the structure allows them to be creative.
The location is also very important, because we can tell this is a place far away from iconic French cities. Why set your story there?
Marion: The location we chose is in Northern France, it’s very non-touristy, the opposite of the Mediterranean, it has beautiful natural lighting and a kind of vintage quality, which works very well with Caroline. It’s a place slightly removed from the present.
Fanny, did you draw any inspiration to play Caroline from your relationship with your own daughters?
Fanny: No. Maybe the only thing is the easiness to speak with younger women, to be at ease with people from another generation. I’m more silent and closed with my children, I’d never speak to them about my own affairs (laughs).
The film is very sensual, everyone seems to enjoy eating, smoking, sex... how do you develop these qualities on film?
Marion: I think that like Fanny mentioned, there is life in cinema and also one aspect of love is the idea of appetite. Caroline for example shows appetite in all its forms, in libido, food, once Caroline becomes alive, all of her senses become alive.
When you were shooting scenes in the center, did you ever say to yourself “oh this isn’t so bad”?
Fanny: No! (Laughs) I hate groups! I hate school! I hated all those things when I was a child, it would be a nightmare. I love the script and the fact that Caroline thought this was boring too, I realized if I was forced to be in a group I could suddenly realize next to me there is also someone who could make me laugh, but whether you’re old or young, and you’re in a group, you have to walk to the right, obey rules...for me that sounds like the beginning of destruction. I prefer to die alone than to die in a group.
Perhaps your aversion to groups is what has made you such an avid reader. Are there any books you’ve found yourself getting lost into recently?
Fanny: Oui, I’m reading an American book, written by Donna Tart, called The Goldfinch. I want to stay in my bed with it, I don’t care about New York! I read the two books she wrote before this and they’re fantastic, but this one is just “boom!”. It’s true though, reading is to be never alone and always alone.
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Bright Days Ahead is now in theaters and on demand.