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