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.
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 It also includes a couple of historical references to the aftermath of war and one incident that some audiences may find shocking in the context of what seems a frothy comedy.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.
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.
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.
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):
Sometimes considered the pinnacle of Luis García Berlanga’s work, The Executioner is a black comedy, a ‘farce’ and now an intriguing document recording aspects of Franco’s Spain in the early 1960s – a period when Spain was beginning to slowly emerge from isolation and grapple with the modernising world of the rest of Western Europe as well as North America.
José Luis (Nino Manfredi) is an undertaker who wants to go to Germany to become a mechanic. One day his job takes him to a prison to pick up the body of an executed prisoner and he reluctantly finds himself having to visit the home (dingy rented rooms) of an executioner on the verge of retirement and his daughter, the voluptuous Carmen. She, like José Luis, has found it difficult to keep a relationship going because of her father’s profession. But true love (and sexual desire) leads to the inevitable pregnancy and the couple must marry. Meanwhile, the executioner has the chance to rent a new apartment because of his official status. But he is due to retire – and will therefore lose the apartment. José Luis, in time-honoured fashion must apply for the job in order to ‘keep it in the family’ – and to keep the new roof over the heads of his wife, child and father-in-law. He prays he will never be needed to ‘perform’ – but the first job arrives and it is in La Palma, Mallorca.
As we noted with earlier films by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem, Italian neo-realism was an important influence on oppositional Spanish filmmaking in the Franco era. This film is less neo-realist as such and more related to Italian comedies. It features both one of the best-known Italian actors of the commedia all’italiana in the form of Nino Manfredi and one of the great Italian cinematographers, Tonino Delli Colli, famous for his work with Leone, Polanski, Fellini, Louis Malle etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Executioner was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1963 and won the FIPRESCI Prize. The Spanish government was trying to deflect attention from a death sentence pronounced on a communist leader in Spain and they faced the quandary that Berlanga both attracted much-needed artistic prestige to Spanish Cinema, but also embarrassed a government planning a political execution.
Aspects of The Executioner work as farce and that made me think of the later political farces of Dario Fo but it was another Italian connection that struck me quite vigorously. The central plot device whereby José Luis is forced to go after the executioner’s job to get the new apartment sets up a series of interactions with the public servants of Franco’s state. They all deal with the quandary that faces José Luis in an almost perfunctory way. They know he doesn’t want to do the job, but they’ll happily support his application so as to process their own paperwork. This exposure of rigid bureaucracy is similar to the even more fiendish bureaucratic contradictions found in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Cuban satire Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) in which the problem is not one of finding an executioner but of getting permission to open a coffin because a man has been buried with his worker’s card and without the card his widow can’t claim a pension. Alea had trained in Rome in the 1950s. He’d also probably seen Berlanga’s film at a festival. Another later Italian connection is the Naples episode of De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) in which Sophia Loren is a housewife who must be constantly producing children or the city will take away her family apartment. The plight of workers and their families is shared across Italy, Spain and Cuba despite their different political systems. What makes the Spanish case stand out is the much darker undertones that Berlanga suddenly brings to the fore in the closing sequence. The ‘comedy’ of José Luis being gradually persuaded to carry out his executioner duties for the first time is suddenly made shocking by the switch to a long shot of a cavernous large hall with bare white walls at the far end of which is a small black door (see image below). On the other side is the place of execution and José Luis is dragged across the hall and through the door, fortified by coffee and brandy and held by guards, judges and the priest – the symbols of the Francoist regime – kicking and screaming. The condemned man has already been taken through, relatively quietly. As one reviewer put it, Berlanga is able to show that the execution process affects the innocent working man more than the resigned condemned man.
When I started this post I was a little sceptical about the high status of the film but as I’ve had to think about specific scenes and how they fit together I’m beginning to appreciate how it all fits together. There are no superfluous scenes and Berlanga fits a great deal into the roughly 90 minutes running time. The wedding of José Luis and Carmen is, like that in That Happy Couple, a somewhat farcical affair. They are ushered in to follow a high society wedding and quickly married while all the trappings of the high-class wedding are being cleared away, even the candles are being snuffed out so that they are virtually in the dark. In nearly every incident the working class couple are being subjected to forms of humiliation or mockery/disdain/selfishness. But through it all they grin and bear it.
The closing scenes in Mallorca reveal a Spain beginning to ‘open up’ to the outside world with some kind of international event attracting the paparazzi, English tourists in the resorts and the ‘jet set’ in yachts in the harbour. Franco’s regime would carry on for another dozen years until his death and the eventual restoration of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. Censorship in the Spanish film industry would remain until the late 1970s but you feel that Berlanga (and Bardem) had managed somehow to show both Spanish audiences and the internal film audience that censorship could be overcome with creativity. Berlanga’s co-writers on this film were Rafael Azcona and Ennio Flaiano. The other two lead actors are Emma Penella as Carmen and José Isbert as her father.
There are numerous offers to watch The Executioner free online. I’ve no idea if any of them are legit. Here’s a good quality 1963 trailer with French subtitles:
When a subtitled film gets a wide release, I’m always torn between elation that it is going to be more widely seen and a terrible fear that there will just be two of us in the multiplex screen. The other possibility is that people will see it and loathe it. I wondered if this might be happening with Pedro Almodóvar‘s new film. It was a strange experience watching it in Hebden Bridge Picture House where it seemed to go down very well (Hebden is a very interesting and diverse community) and then to head home to discover that on IMDb it had a 5.7 rating and several damning reviews. Checking the box office figures, it has actually done OK business with £750,000 in the UK after three weeks – down on Almodóvar’s recent titles but a good result for a subtitled film. I can only assume that the poor IMDb response (mirrored on Rotten Tomatoes) is some kind of conservative backlash.
The film’s English language title refers to the Pointer Sisters’ song from 1982 which for me marked the high spot of the film. The Spanish title may be untranslatable but means something like ‘In-flight lovers’. At least this makes more sense than the using the song title. I felt that the film was a familiar camp, transgressive farce that contains some satirical elements but which was fundamentally humanist and actually quite sweet. Reading the coverage in Sight and Sound (May 2013), including a short piece by Almodóvar himself, I think that there is a general agreement about the comedy but some variance over whether the effect is satirical, melancholic or ‘light’.
The plot involves a passenger aircraft with malfunctioning landing gear that must circle losing fuel until a suitable runway can be prepared for a crash landing. In the meantime the crew attempt to divert the business class passengers with booze, drugs and a song. The economy class passengers have all been drugged/tranquilised so that they sleep through the proceedings.
Most commentators see the film as a throwback to the early Almodóvar of the 1980s and there is certainly something reminiscent of his 1987 hit Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which in the UK at least was a breakthrough film. However, I do wonder if some of those critics who attack the new fim so savagely have actually seen any of the director’s earlier 1980s work (let alone his 1970s 8mm output). Almodóvar’s current status derives mostly from the success of his mainstream melodramas/thrillers in a sequence that began with Live Flesh in 1997 and which includes the Oscar-winning All About My Mother (1999). It is the audiences that discovered the director through these films that is probably ‘shocked’ by the new film.
I think that the key to enjoying the film is to take it at face value as a farce, to try not to compare it with any recollections of the earlier work and certainly not to worry about any kind of ‘social realist’ commentary. Some audiences seem to have real problems with questions of sexism and other forms of moral judgement. That way madness lies in an Almodóvar film! After the screening – and perhaps after a second screening – it might be possible to analyse what the director is suggesting through satire. Spain is clearly in a mess with a banking crisis, an economy in meltdown and dangerously high levels of unemployment. The aircraft is circling above Central Spain without a landing strip ready to receive it safely when it crashes. The ordinary people are unaware of what is happening and their leaders/the rich don’t know what to do and are trying to run away to Mexico instead. Of course one of them is a banker and one of his failed schemes involves an airport that has been built but never used . . . The others have personal stories that can be exposed and possibly brought to some form of conclusion through healthy doses of sex, drugs and music. Almodóvar cites Hollywood screwball comedies as his inspiration, adds a touch of Busby Berkeley and pays hommage to Luis García Berlanga. Berlanga was one of the great Spanish directors of the 1950s and 1960s, creating satirical works that evaded Franco’s censors. I have fond memories of his satire on Francoist attempts to woo the Americans in Welcome Mr. Marshall! (¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!) made in partnership with Juan Antonio Bardem in 1952. In a tiny cameo at the beginning of the film, Almodóvar’s two biggest stars launch the film narrative in an unexpected way and then severalof the main players in the farce turn out to be familiar Almodóvar actors Cecilia Roth (All About My Mother), Lola Dueñas (Talk to Her etc.), Javier Cámara (Talk to Her, Bad Education) etc. – I’m sure there are plenty more in what is a ‘family affair’.
So, enjoy first and think about it afterwards!