How to Be a Good Wife

M, 108 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

How to Be a Good Wife opens at the crack of dawn, as everyone gets ready for a busy day. The new school year is about to begin with a fresh intake of girls who will learn the ‘pillars of wisdom’ for successful household management and a happy marriage.

In 1967, the universities in France may have been festering with revolution but there were other options for parents who wanted to prepare their daughters for life. There were more than 1,000 institutes across the country like the Van Der Beck Institute that offered courses for educating teenage girls on how to become the perfect homemaker and wife.

a surprising footnote to the 1960s turned into marvellous farce

Writer-director Martin Provost has turned this surprising footnote to the end of the 1960s in France into a marvellous farce, just what the 2020 silly season needs. A comedy set in a school of good housekeeping and good manners in a walled town known best for its vineyards and strudel. Far from the ructions in Paris in the lead-up to May 1968, but not quite far enough.

As the cock crows, head instructor Paulette Van Der Beck (Juliette Binoche) is already dressed, looking snappy in a pastel pink fitted number, high heels and string of pearls. One last spray of lacquer to her rigid hair and she’ll be ready.

it has been easy to forget Binoche is a really good comedienne

From the outset, Juliette Binoche is wonderful in this central role. With so many serious and occasionally devastating roles she has played over the years, it has been easy to forget that she is a really good comedienne. Matched with Provost’s snappy lines and direction, her work here is a triumph.

An extended opening montage that introduces the institute and its assorted characters is one of the film’s delights. Paulette’s introduction to the new students is set off against an amusing series of vignettes that show how things work in practice.

Paulette’s ‘pillars’ of wifely wisdom are reminiscent of 1950s manuals for good housekeeping, full of advice on how to keep hubby happy, that do the rounds online. They contain advice about making hubby comfortable after a long day at work, plumping up pillows, offering to remove shoes, while speaking in a soothing voice. One I’m thinking of ends with the maxim ‘a good wife always knows her place’.

There are other signs that there is fun ahead. Sister Marie-Therese (Noemie Lvovsky, of Camille Rewinds) is sprung with her ciggie. A former member of the French Resistance, she now seems to have a debilitating superstition of redheads. A new redhead has enrolled, and they have never had one before.

Yolande Moreau and Noemie Lvovsky in How to Be a Good Wife. Courtesy Unifrance

The third whacky female is Gilberte Van Der Beck, the headmaster’s unmarried sister, played by Yolande Moreau. Her performance was commanding in Provost’s most highly awarded film, Seraphine.

After a few comic scenes of Paulette’s husband, school principal, Robert Van Der Beck (Francois Berleand) ogling then new student body, he is swept from the frame by a cardiac arrest.

Then Gilberte and Paulette discover that Robert has left the school’s finances in ruins. They seek advice from banker Andre (Edouard Baer), who turns out to be Paulette’s long lost old flame.

Their renewed attraction takes HTBAGW n a whole new direction. The pacing changes awkwardly as scenes of romantic drama ensue. However, a light farcical tone is restored as Andre proposes while hanging from a downpipe and reciting a recipe to prove his credentials.

Paulette, Gilberte and Marie-Therese have their work cut out with the class of ’67, who are in many ways a more feisty, worldly bunch than their cloistered teachers. They don’t need liberating like their seniors do and it’s their generation that will carry feminism forward, after all.

The bumbling adults are the main event, with the girls relegated to subplots. However, a young Brigitte Bardot lookalike (Marie Zabukovec), and two in a tentative romance (Anamaria Vartolomei and ‘the redhead’ Pauline Briand), bring a heap of verve and brio along that the film benefits from enormously. Zai Zai Zai Zai!

Schools of etiquette and deportment haven’t disappeared, of course, and today no doubt teach with gender equality in mind.

Farce doesn’t appeal to everyone, but the French do it brilliantly when they do it well. Despite a few diversions into other territory, this film is very entertaining, and turns its title on its head.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 December 2020

Featured image: Noemie Lvovsky and Juliette Binoche in How to Be a Good Wife. Courtesy Unifrance

The Truth

PG, 106 minutes­­­­­

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This delicate, relatable family drama with a mother-daughter relationship at its core is set in the warm tones of a Paris autumn. A New York-based screenwriter flies in for a visit as her mother, a screen actress, is having her memoir published.

With husband and daughter in tow, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) arrives at her childhood home. Not far from the metro but a world unto itself, set amongst lawns and trees, it holds an abundance of memories for her. It looks like a castle her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) observes. There’s a prison behind it, Lumir rejoinders.

it’s a wonder that the filmmaker, who speaks neither French nor English, directed through a translator. You could never guess

Within the old family home, the imperious matriarch, Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), awaits them. She is a vision of establishment glamour. Perfectly proportioned features discretely made-up and a coiffured mane of blonde hair. Her daughter looks drawn, wears hardly a skerrick of makeup, and the hair needs attention.

It’s not just a contrast between lifestyles either. Fabienne is also a working woman, currently in the role of a daughter with a time-travelling mother in a faintly absurdist science fiction film ‘Memories of My Mother’.

So far, so clear. Things get going when Lumir protests  that there are lies in the memoir about watching  school plays and meeting her daughter at the school gate. Fabienne’s riposte? As an actress, she will never tell the naked truth, and isn’t a little neglect better than interference in Lumir’s private life?

The memoir also states that Lumir’s father, Pierre, is dead. Perhaps it’s all in a manner of speaking, as there is a giant tortoise that lives in the shrubbery that goes by the name of Pierre. The man himself (Roger Van Hool) comes knocking sometime later, looking mischievous and very much alive.

But for Fabienne, Pierre no longer exists – she now has a partner in her bed and a male assistant Luc (Alain Libolt). The beleaguered Luc resigns dramatically, then returns to his duties during the course of events.

Fabienne can’t recall which other actors of her generation – let’s call them rivals – are still alive either. At least, it may not be intentional but a cultivated absent-mindedness. Writer, editor and director Hirokazu Kore-ada has instilled a strong undercurrent of humour in this gentle, witty study of a family dominated by two strong women.

This is not the first time, and surely not the last, that Deneuve will be cast as the estranged mother we have seen her as in Claire Darling, in The Midwife, and in On My Way. While The Truth plays with perspectives on the critical parent-child relationship, it is also about ageing actresses, their rivals and those set to inherit their legacy who wait in the wings. But that’s a secondary theme.

Catherine Deneuve: a Vertigo moment?

The men in the story, especially self-described second-rate TV actor Hank (Ethan Hawke) helps with rapprochement, and makes for some amusing interchanges over the dinner table. Maybe all the blokes, like Hank, have a bit of a crush on Fabienne. Even the director who likes those shots of the whorl of hair in a bun above the nape of her neck. A reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo?

by the end, family seems like a unit, just like the band of thieves in Shoplifters

Over the course of the film, the two sparring partners, Lumir and Fabienne, grow closer and when they finally hug, it is genuinely touching. They even share confidences about their male partner’s love-making, how it might compare to their cooking. By the end, the family seems like a unit, just like the band of thieves in Shoplifters, that won Kore-ada the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year.

Making The Truth was both a departure from, and a challenge to Kore-ada’s cultural sensibility. His characters speak up rather than remain silent as they might be inclined to do in his home country. In this sense, the film actually needed characters to be French.

It is a wonder that Kore-ada has brought two major French actors, Binoche and Deneuve, together like this for the first time. It was entirely his idea, and a ‘wild’ one at that, as far as his French crew were concerned.

It’s also a wonder that the filmmaker, who speaks neither French nor English, directed this warm and witty family drama through a translator. You could never guess.

An earlier version of Jane’s review was first published by the Canberra Times on 29 December 2019

  • Featured image: family gathering: from left, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), Hank (Ethan Hawke), Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and  Charlotte (Clementine Grenier)

At home with The Truth: interview with director Hirokazu Kore-ada

By © Jane Freebury

After winning the top prize at Cannes festival last year for his film, Shoplifters, the director Hirokazu Kore-ada went to work on a new project in France.

He had something quite different up his sleeve. It was to be set in a grand old Parisian home with a leafy garden, the domicile of someone rich and famous, and a world away from his impoverished band of thieves who live together as family on the fringes of society in Tokyo.

Actually, The Truth had been in development for some time with Juliette Binoche, the French star of renown. And Kore-ada had a screenplay to polish up and already one or two other actors in mind. American actor Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise trilogy), who is an ease in French language cinema, for starters.

Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) with daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier)

Kore-ada’s other idea was getting Catherine Deneuve on board. An icon of French cinema since the 1960s, Deneuve is an imposing 76 years old, with a leonine head of hair and a ‘don’t-even-think-about-it’ expression on her classic features.

He wanted her for the character Fabienne, an ageing film star still performing who is estranged from her screenwriter daughter, Lumir (Binoche), who lives in New York. Things come to a head when Lumir returns to France to celebrate the publication of her mother’s memoir.

A French person would never think of that. That’s wild

How did Kore-ada get the two of them, Binoche and Deneuve, in their first ever collaboration on screen?

‘I was developing this with Juliette Binoche for years. When I suggested that we ask Catherine Deneuve to play the mother, Juliette said it would be a big challenge for her, as well as a great honour.

‘When I told the French staff it was the direction I wanted to go in, they came back and said, you know, a French person would never think of that. That’s wild.’

Wild, indeed. Yet there is ample space for both onscreen in this subtle, layered family drama. The Truth is an intriguing double act with two iconic French actors, a generation apart, who share the screen. Ethan Hawke is there too, as Hank, Lumir’s husband, a TV actor as often at rehab as he is in work.

What was it like working with Deneuve? ‘She will always be able to give you the take you want,’ says Kore-ada. ‘The really interesting thing is that she knows when she has given it to you. She’ll have a moment of inspiration, then, bang, it will come out, and she’ll tell you “oh, that was the one”’.

I have read elsewhere that she tends not to arrive on set until noon and prefers to work in Paris, though Kore-ada does not mention this.

Bringing a child into the world is not enough to make you a parent

In The Truth, Binoche and Deneuve each play both a mother and a daughter at different points. Lumir has arrived with her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) and Fabienne’s current role is as a daughter in a time-travelling story, ‘Memories of My Mother’, a tale with a far-fetched plot that pokes a bit of fun at the high seriousness of science fiction.

The beauty of Kore-ada’s films is their exploration of family, family in its many manifestations, family with blood ties and ‘families’ without. He has observed that one of his major realisations in life is that bringing a child into the world is not enough to make you a parent, and that the concept of family needs constant reaffirmation. Will he continue exploring this fundamental human relationship?

‘It’s one of those subjects that you never arrive at a final definitive answer.’ But we shall see.

Kore-ada, incidentally, speaks neither English nor French. This interview a couple of weeks ago was conducted through an interpreter.

How is it possible to make a film in France when you don’t speak French, or English? Kore-ada works closely with his Japanese-French speaking translator, Lea Le Dimna, who he met at the Marrakech film festival. ‘In the past five years since I met her, I’ve consistently hired her services.’ Her familiarity with how Kore-ada communicates his working methods has made her indispensable.

How did he find it working with a French cast and crew? ‘One of the key differences working with French people is that they pretty much say what they think and tell you face to face, whereas if you are Japanese you might hold back, and stay silent about those things.

‘I was sort of aware of that difference and wanted to incorporate it, that they would say what they think, and that much is a very integral part of this film.’

It’s such an interesting observation that seems to fit with the observation that Shoplifters offers another perspective on the official narrative about well-being in Japanese family and society.

I suggest that The Truth plays with the naked truth, the embellished truth and the unspoken truth, while it develops a recognition of the position that each character is coming from.

‘You’re absolutely right,’ he says, to general laughter. It’s more important than agreeing on the truth.

‘The story as I approached it was that there was this daughter who was to confront her mother with the truth. Whatever it was. Yet when she recounts her own history, she realises there are other truths or things that have been glossed over.

‘So, that’s the account I really wanted to cover. That she does have these moments where the trick is that the truth is actually less important than finding out where she stood in relation to her mother.’

‘In the story, it is the performance that actually helps heal those gaps.’

The Truth was selected to open the Venice International Film Festival in August this year. It opens in Australia on Boxing Day.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 December 2019