French cinematic touchstones and a powerful feminist message merge in Martin Provost’s How to be a Good Wife. This slightly bonkers film traverses similar ground to Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour, and does it with a similarly entertaining flair. But it also leans heavily into the traditions of French farce.
Provost’s previous film was the far more conventional The Midwife (2017). Here he unleashes his comedic instincts to explore a pivotal moment in French history through the microcosm of a stuffy finishing school. The film makes it clear the school was part of a French tradition that differed wildly from the stereotypical Swiss finishing school. Rather than providing lessons in “social graces” for rich debutantes, these schools were for the daughters of the middle class to learn what we’d now call home economics. But in the process, they reinforced outdated ideas of a woman’s role in the world.
The film opens in the autumn of 1967. At the Van der Beck Academy in Alsace, the new school year is getting underway. Headmistress Paulette Van der Beck (Juliette Binoche) runs the school with the help of her sister-in-law Gilberte (Yolande Moreau) and a local nun, Marie-Thérèse (Noémie Lvovsky). Paulette’s husband Robert (François Berléand) takes care of the “behind the scenes” of management and finance. The new students include the smart Annie Fuchs (Marie Zabukovec), the awkward Yvette Ziegler (Lily Taieb) and the rebellious Albane Des-deux-Ponts (Anamaria Vartolomei). In an early scene, Marie-Thérèse predicts disaster, because Fuchs is the first redhead to have ever attended the school. But her superstitious prophecy comes to pass when Robert dies after choking on a bone in Gilberte’s rabbit fricassee.
Now alone, Paulette has to pull herself together to keep the school running. When she finds that the school has a sea of debt thanks to Robert’s hidden gambling addiction, she fears the worst. But a visit to the bank provides a ray of hope. A kindly bank manager André Grunvald (Edouard Baer) is willing to overlook Robert’s huge debt and help the Academy out. But André’s kindness may not be all it seems – he has a past with Paulette. They were lovers some 25 years earlier, but the war separated them. Now André sees the chance to re-connect with the newly widowed Paulette. But storm clouds are growing in distant Paris. Unrest is on the horizon, and even rural Alsace won’t be spared.
If you know a bit of French history, you’ll probably be aware of the social upheaval known as “May 68”. In May of 1968, a perfect storm of student unrest, political discord and workers’ grievances boiled over into a full-blown insurrection. And while the disturbances dissipated quickly, they left an indelible mark on the country. One of the student leaders from the time – and later politician – Alain Geismar said the movement had succeeded “as a social revolution, not as a political one”. Provost takes up that point. He dovetails the May 68 movement into the massive societal change around women’s rights and identity.
But How to be a Good Wife isn’t some stodgy political theory lecture. Provost dials up the comedy, with nods to the likes of Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) and Jacques Demy (The Young Girls of Rochefort). And he also mixes in a couple of romances, along with some pretty heavy drama. The resulting blend is all over the place, but I suspect that might be intentional. Provost could be trying to capture a sense of the national confusion and dismay around the events of the time. That could also provide some context for the bizarrely over-the-top final sequence.
French cinematic treasure Juliette Binoche (Who You Think I Am) shows perhaps unexpected comic chops as Paulette. Marie Zabukovec and Anamaria Vartolomei imbue their characters with youthful exuberance; though I found Lily Taieb more compelling as the painfully insecure Ziegler. Edouard Baer is suitably charming as André, though his character fades in and out of the script by Provost and Séverine Werba. But the two defining performances of the film come from the wonderful Yolande Moreau as the dutiful Gilberte, and Noémie Lvovsky (Monsieur Chocolat) as the ex-Resistance fighter turned nun Marie-Thérèse.
Don’t go into How to be a Good Wife expecting it to be a conventional French film. It’s pretty out-there in a lot of ways. Some will undoubtedly leave the cinema wondering what the hell they just saw. But if you’re up for a bit of Gallic craziness over the summer holidays, this could be the film for you.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television