Martin Provost, drawn to portraits of strong women

A director drawn to stories about strong women

© Jane Freebury

Of all the places to find one’s lead actor. It was in one of the aisles at the local supermarket, in his hometown an hour outside Paris, that the French filmmaker Martin Provost noticed a  distinctive presence.

When he clapped eyes on Yolande Moreau, his immediate thought was ‘that’s the one’. He would eventually cast her as the lead actor in his most successful fiction feature film, Seraphine, in 2008.

For his study of the talented, unconventional and unstable artist, Seraphine Louis, Provost won numerous awards at the French Cesars, including best film.

He has built a film career on screen portraits of strong women. From Le Ventre de Juliette to his latest, a comedy, How to Be a Good Wife.

Seraphine was far from a first role for Belgian actress Moreau, who has been on screen since 1984, but it won her a second Cesar for best female actor. The first was for When the Sea Rises. Seraphine also brought her to international attention in Europe and the US.

Provost tends towards casting strong female lead actors. In his latest film, a delicious farce called How to Be a Good Wife, he has not one, but three great female leads. Juliette Binoche and Noemie Lvovsky appear alongside Yolande Moreau as instructors for young women at an institute for good housekeeping and manners.

Institutes such as this were apparently established during the 1880s. By the late 1960s when How to Be is set, there were, says Provost, more than 1,000 across France.

In a hook up in mid-December I suggest to the genial writer-director that on the back of recent films, Violette, Seraphine and even The Midwife, his new film is a surprise. How to Be a Good Wife is undeniably a comedy.

 

It was among the top rating film at the French box office mid-year, when Europe was in lockdown. HTBAGW would have definitely lifted the spirits.  Among things it has going for it is a spot-on performance by Juliette Binoche, and a surprise touch of razzle-dazzle at the end. Provost collaborated on the screenplay with Severine Werba.

Does he have particular actors in mind as he writes? Did he have Emmanuelle Devos in mind for Violette?

‘Yes, yes. I always write with someone in particular in mind.’

Did he have Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot in mind for The Midwife, his drama about the daughter and mistress of a man who has passed away. ‘Yes … (and) both of them said “yes”. Immediately.’

Frot, the midwife, dutiful, principled and diligent, is contacted by the flamboyant, flagrantly careless mistress (Deneuve). The women prove to be vastly different at first, but find common ground despite it. It remains an underrated drama.

Violette, with Emmanuelle Devos in the eponymous titular role, was based on the biography of French novelist Violette Leduc who moved in literary circles with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir.

It was a tough film for this viewer, demanded much of its audience and its lead actor, Devos.

How was Provost able to pivot from such work with hefty themes and make light with his latest, How to Be a Good Wife?

‘I like to take risks and change my style from comedy to drama and back again. I have a very serious film coming up again next year.

Moving between genres is also a form of self-discovery, of taking risks.’

Did he have Binoche in mind for How to Be a Good Wife? Yes, indeed.

Having watched his films about assertive female characters, I’d wondered as I watched how he was going ‘to get there’, i.e. endorse a strong female character. But in the end, he does.

‘All the domestic training institutes closed in ’68! All of them! It was a turning point, a very revolutionary year,’ said Provost corroborating the impact of the demos in Paris in May on the provinces.

After all, by then Simone de Beauvoir had written The Second Sex, Brigitte Bardot had appeared in And God Created Woman, and married women in France had claimed the right to work without their husband’s consent.

This frothy farce has solid foundations. Provost’s pre-production research into institutes that taught etiquette 50 years ago revealed a batch of small, respectfully made documentaries that recorded the activities of those establishments at the time.

Despite a backstory and a title that might suggest otherwise, How to Be a Good Wife is not inconsistent with the director’s tradition of spirited female characters. He’s just managed way more laughs this time.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 December 2020