How to Be a Good Wife (La bonne épouse, France 2020)

The staff and students of the school. (all photos courtesy Memento Films ©) Carole Bethuel

Comedies are often the most difficult films to write about and foreign language comedies or even same language comedies from different cultures are more difficult still. This is certainly the case with How to Be a Good Wife. Cineuropa has labelled the film an ‘arthouse comedy’ which I find a little puzzling. This seems to me to be a mainstream film in terms of genre and narrative structure. The only things ‘arty’ about it are some of the cultural references for audiences outside France, including the concept of the farce. I can’t think of another film with quite the same mix of elements though the romcom/sports film Populaire (France-Belgium 2012) has some of the elements and is even photographed by Guillaume Schiffman who shot How to Be a Good Wife. I’ve also seen references to some of Francois Ozon’s work such as Potiche (France-Belgium 2010). But with Potiche we enter discussions about well-known auteurs and there are some reviews that suggest that How to Be a Good Wife is simply not in the same class and that Ozon or Pedro Almodóvar would do a better job.

Paulette fronts a TV report from the school

Here is the plot outline of How to Be a Good Wife which features Juliette Binoche, Yolande Moreau and Noémie Lvovsky – all excellent. It is the start of the school year in September 1967 and at a small private school for ‘young ladies’ in Alsace the three teachers are awaiting the somewhat reduced number of girls for the current session. This is one of the many such French institutions that taught girls to be fabulous homemakers and dutiful wives and mothers, but little else. The headteacher Paulette (Binoche) is married to the school’s owner who does little except spy on the girls, otherwise the couple’s relationship is not going well. His sister Gilberte (Moreau) is not married and pines for love. The hardest-working of the trio is Sister Marie-Thérèse. The film has two conventional themes. One is surviving as an institution and the other is the prospect of romance and liberation for Paulette and Gilberte – and for the 17 year-old students. For this, the timing is crucial because the school year will run through to May 1968 when an annual school trip to Paris is scheduled. Feminism is just beginning to creep into the mindset of the wider public in France and the film includes several direct references to the changes that are happening. It also includes a couple of historical references to the aftermath of war and one incident that some audiences may find shocking in the context of what seems a frothy comedy. This insertion of some ‘serious’ elements has been a factor for critics and reviewers to claim that the satire on political and social change is badly handled.

Gilberte and the girls cook a celebration meal

The film’s director is Martin Provost who co-wrote the script with Séverine Werba. Provost has built a reputation with four previous features each focusing on a woman as the central character. Seraphine (2008), Violette (2013) and The Midwife (2017) all made an impact but not in UK cinemas. Yolande Moreau played the painter at the centre of the biopic of Séraphine Louis, Emmanuelle Devois played the writer Violette Leduc and The Midwife featured Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve. This use of well-known stars and star-actors attracted audiences in France. The current film was released in France in 2020 and the whole release, both domestic and international, has been somewhat curtailed by the pandemic.

Sister Marie-Thérèse is the comic figure who is in many ways the most capable – a familiar fenre figure

What to make of it? I enjoyed the film and in particular the three central performances. La Binoche has what seems like a lot of fun. There is a fourth character who offers Paulette romance. He is played, again with gusto, by Edouard Baer. The film is bookended by two set pieces. In the first, Paulette introduces the the new girls to the school’s curriculum which will teach them the important lessons of becoming a homemaker, wife and mother. She does this formally using a blackboard and teacher address. At the end of the film she repeats the procedure but in the form of a musical number which some have dubbed a ‘Jacques Demy’ take-off. I love Demy and I thought this was fun. I suppose the question is whether younger audiences who have no knowledge of the 1960s ‘liberation’ of women and young people generally, will respond to the ways in Provost stages many of the scenes. I don’t see why not. There are several important messages delivered quite cleverly. I’m sure it’s still a revelation that up to this period a woman couldn’t open a back account without a husband’s consent. The film did remind me in some ways of British boarding school comedies of the 1950s in the way that the context brings the students and teachers together. Schools like the ‘École Ménagère Van Der Beck’ (domestic science school) were still relatively numerous in France up to 1967, but none survived after 1968. 

Paulette and the bank manager enjoy a fling

This film is in a CinemaScope ratio and the bright colours show off 1960s ideas about fashion. The music score by Grégoire Hetzel seemed to work for me. I’m sure there were some contemporary songs played diegetically but I can’t find the titles. The girls in the school, with a handful picked out for brief narratives of their own, are well cast and believable as 60s young women. I would say that this is an enjoyable mainstream film but I recognise that for some it’s Marmite – something to love or to hate. I hope I’ve given you enough insight to make up your own mind. I don’t think the film has a UK distributor yet.

Here’s the Australian trailer (with more spoilers than given above):

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