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Film Review: How To Be A Good Wife

Director:    Martin Provost

Cast:    Juliette Binoche, Noémie Lvovsky, Yolande Moreau, Edouard Baer, François Berléand, Marie Zabukovec

Rating:    M

Running Time:    108

Australian Distributor:    Palace Films


Set in 1967 at a home economics school in the medieval town of Boersch in the Alsace-Moselle region of France, Madame Paulette Van der Beck (Binoche) has to take over the administration of the school after her husband Robert (Berléand) unexpectedly departs the scene. She and her sister-in-law Gilberte (Moreau), with the aid of the eccentric nun Marie-Thérèse (Lvovsky), have always taught their young female charges “the seven pillars of being a good housewife”, but now she has to look after the finances, too.

What she finds when she goes through the books is a shock and necessitates a visit to the local bank manager, where she has yet another surprise. It transpires that he is a man who she was in love with many years earlier but who she thought had been killed in the war, André (Baer). He didn’t marry because he never gave up hope of finding Paulette again and now he wants to rekindle their romance, which turns her staid, traditional way of life upside down. André is not the only thing upending her life, either – social upheaval is changing the entire country and this story is taking place just before the events of May ’68 altered la vie de France forever.

One might raise an eyebrow at a film about feminist awakening, even one as breezy as this, being co-written and directed by a man. To be fair to Provost, he has a proven track record of female-centric work such as Séraphine and Violette. They are however resolutely dramatic works and his hand is far less steady on the tiller here.

How to Be a Good Wife is lumbered with a sense of flippancy that undercuts any serious issues it attempts to deal with, particularly later on when it shrugs off the drastic actions of a distraught student. Frothy needn’t equate to inconsequentiality, but Provost simply doesn’t handle the balance.

Bluntly, the film is simply not a good vehicle for the considerable talents of Juliette Binoche. It is far too broad and farcical. Faring better are the impressive young supporting cast fulfilling a normal coming-of-age narrative in parallel to Paulette’s sudden late bloom. Marie Zabukovec is the spit of a young Bardot as the rebellious ringleader Fuchs. Anamaria Vartolomei and Pauline Briand share a believably tentative romance, and Lily Taieb does well with a jarringly serious storyline.

How To Be A Good Wife treats its subject matter in such a light-hearted manner. Of course, the domestic audience in France would be aware of the history behind the script but foreign audiences need a bit more background to ‘get’ the bigger picture. One can’t help thinking that this important material about a period of seismic change would have been better served if it had been treated as a drama, rather than in this disorderly fashion. 

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