Martin Provost directs How to Be a Good Wife (La bonne épouse), one of the star attractions at this year’s French Film Festival UK which is operating as an online event this year. Starring Juliette Binoche, the project penned by Provost and Séverine Werba, is a well-constructed social satire which takes on sixties ideals of womanhood at the dawn of a liberated cultural, sexual, and political revolution, with an impressive dose of French panache and style.
Opening in mid-sixties Alsace, Paulette Van der Beck (Binoche) operates a finishing school aimed at instilling young ladies with the skills to become the perfect homemakers and wives, under the leadership of her husband. However, the sudden death of her spouse leads to Paulette landing the responsibility of running the school, shaping her students’ minds and skills whilst trying to navigate the temptations of a more liberated world.
Set against the breezy Alsace countryside, How to Be a Good Wife taps into a near Douglas Sirk inspired melodramatic style. Pristine set decoration, a woozy romantic soundtrack, and delightful slow zooms, help craft a nostalgic sense of camp melodrama, perfectly befitting of the playful tone of Provost and Werba’s narrative. Further period details are captured through tongue-in-cheek stylistic moments such as black and white newsreel footage and a buoyant, colourful musical number in the final moments.
As the narrative begins, we are introduced to Paulette lecturing a scrappy, rebellious cohort of new students on the core pillars of good housekeeping. Backed by a staff including nun Marie-Therese (Noémie Lvovsky) and her sister Gilberte (Yolande Moreau), the concept of the old guard versus new ideologies is set, making way for an immaculate farcical comedy of errors. The humour is wonderfully pitched delving between high camp one-liners (Marie-Therese being horrified by the concept of a red-head being one example) to larger comic set pieces.
Binoche is magnificent in her exploration of the woman who has fallen into the role of the ‘good wife,’ with that façade gradually crumbling as the narrative progresses and Paulette is exposed to the temptations that her young rebellious students are also enticed by. The actress captures Paulette’s fight between these two roles – the performance of wife and free-spirited woman following her heart’s desire – with a hugely engaging and subtly emotive performance. The chance arrival of old flame André (Edouard Baer) prompts a shift in the role of Paulette, whilst also seeing the comedy veer down the route of hot under the collar Paulette trying to hide her new romance from her colleagues at the institute and protect her ‘womanly virtues’.
Provost and Werba impressively capture a sense of context from Parisian riots to Simone de Beauvoir’s growing popularity, drip feeding them through radio broadcasts or in the student’s discussions, capturing the changing times in sixties France. This helps How to Be a Good Wife capture a sense of the time, yet still feel somewhat light-hearted and breezy as a comedy.
Whilst some of the student’s individual narratives do not grip in the same manner as the central linchpin of Paulette’s story, How to Be a Good Wife is a delightful slice of nostalgic humour. With homages to classic melodrama and packing a well-pitched tone, not to mention a magnetic performance from Binoche, this is a breezy success.
How to Be a Good Wife plays as part of the French Film Festival UK at Home. The film is available from Friday 27 November (from 19:30 – available for 24 hours). For more details check out the FFF website.