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 It also includes a couple of historical references to the aftermath of war and one incident that some audiences may find shocking in the context of what seems a frothy comedy.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):
This film was recommended to me and I’m very glad I managed to watch it on BBC iPlayer. Unfortunately it will have left when you read this, but it may be streaming elsewhere. It offers a narrative about being part of the early feminist movement in France in 1971, but presents it in the form of a lesbian romance. It’s very much a product of women’s filmmaking in France, written by Catherine Corsini and Laurette Polmanss, directed by Corsini, produced by Elisabeth Perez and photographed by Jeanne Lapoirie. The narrative is straightforward. Delphine is a young woman who has grown up on a farm in the Limousin Region of South-West Central France. It’s the least populated region in France. Delphine is clear about her lesbian identity but also aware of her parents’ wish that she would marry her childhood friend Antoine. She decides to avoid confrontation by making a move to Paris, taking a job at the retail distribution company Félix Potin and by accident meets a group of women making a street protest about women’s rights. Through this chance meeting she becomes involved with Carole, a teacher of Spanish and one of a group of feminists. There is an obvious attraction between the two and Carole will eventually leave her (male) partner for Delphine. When Delphine’s father has a stroke and she must return home, Carole decides to visit her ‘on the farm’. But can they continue their affair? What’s possible in Paris might not be accepted in rural France.
I enjoyed this film a great deal. One attraction was to see Cécile de France in the role of Carole. It’s a difficult role in some ways as the character’s behaviour moves between being open and supportive and sometimes being more reckless and allowing her political aims to affect her personal relationships. I think I first saw Ms de France in L’auberge espagnole (2002) in which she plays an Erasmus student. She does not seem to age and I was surprised when I realised that she was approaching 40 when she made this film. The storytelling in La belle saison doesn’t offer some of the conventional information we might expect from a story like this, so we know little of Carole’s background. How old is she meant to be? And what kind of teaching does she actually do? Is she really a free agent, able to drop everything to join Delphine? The narrative moves so swiftly and so confidently that neither of these questions occurred to me at the time. Cécile de France may be the star but the central character is Delphine played by Izïa Higelin. Ms Higelin is both an actor and a singer and in 2015 she had relatively little feature film experience – this was just her third film (her second was Samba 2014). As with Carole, it isn’t quite clear how old Delphine is meant to be. Izïa Higelin was in her early twenties when she played the role. (The film’s Press Notes suggest that Carole is 35 and Delphine is 23, but if that is stated, I missed it.)
Why am I so obsessed with the age of the characters? I think it’s because the discourse of ‘womens rights’ in 1971 is so concerned with what women are ‘allowed’ to do. Delphine is a confident, assertive young woman in Paris, discovering that she can take part in the activities of the group which includes Carole. But back in Limousin she is aware that it is simply not done for women to act in certain ways and that if she does so she will offend her parents or alienate the other farmers (in what seems like a co-op operation), especially Antoine. Carole can be reckless, but Delphine needs to be careful – although she has the capacity to act if she thinks it through. My memories of 1971 in London seem to be more about the emergence of the Gay Liberation Front (which met for the first time at the LSE a few months after I graduated). The Women’s Movement in the UK seemed to have been around for a while and women I knew were already becoming politically active in different ways. It’s important to note that two important changes in the law in the UK were the 1967 Abortion Law Reform Act (and access to the Pill for all women via the NHS) and the 1970 Equal Pay Act meant that women in the UK were ahead of French women in these two cases.
In France in 1970 many prominent women signed the ‘Manifeste des 343 salopes’, claiming to have had an illegal abortion themselves, while also demanding the legalisation of abortion. The Bobigny affair (and trial) in 1972 saw many people including the new feminist movement (MLF), come to the support of five women (and their lawyer, Gisèle Halimi) who were tried for helping a teenage girl to have an abortion. During the May ’68 events, scholars have suggested that women engaged in the uprisings saw the positive opportunities for challenging the established sexual order, but also the negatives in terms of male activists not prepared to change their attitudes and behaviour towards female comrades. As a result, the development of MLF (Mouvement de Libération des Femmes) arose from the coming together of women’s groups established in the late 1960s. This issue is there in the views expressed by some of the women in the MLF meeting represented in La belle saison.
In 2018 I taught an evening class alongside Dr. Isabelle Vanderschelden, French Section Lead at Manchester Metropolitan University, and the historical details outlined above came from our notes. Isabelle used a clip from La belle saison and told us that:
The film’s characters are named after two emblematic feminists of the 1970s: the actress and filmmaker Delphine Seyrig and the experimental filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos, who founded together in 1982 the ‘Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir’, whose main objective was to collect, produce and broadcast films and audiovisual documents on the rights, struggles and artistic creation work of women.
Isabelle also added that:
Corsini also wants to place the film in the context of social events in 2010s France – including the ‘mariage pour tous’ debates and the legislation of 2013 in France which enabled same sex marriage.
This ties in with some of the comments made by Catherine Corsini (b. 1956) in the Press Notes when asked why she chose to set Summertime in the 1970s:
I really wanted to pay tribute to feminist women, who have often been vilified, called sex-starved neurotics . . . For years I haven’t really been a true feminist myself, I almost agreed with that vision of them. But I quickly came to realise that I owed many of the benefits I live by today to these women who fought and campaigned for them. Many of them were homosexual. Thanks to this movement, they were finally able to make themselves heard. Actually, the homosexuals have really been instrumental in the emancipation of women in general. I was appealed to by the vitality, the audacity of the feminist movement. I don’t see anything quite similar today. I realised that feminism puts the human element first, and it has been the main principle in the writing of the film.
This was the first film that Catherine Corsini made with her partner Elizabeth Perez on board as producer. The film certainly celebrates the lesbian romance. The cinematography captures the beauty and joy of working in the rural landscape in ‘la belle saison’ and especially when the couple’s lovemaking is depicted outdoors as well as in the bedroom. There may be too much flesh on display for some viewers (based on some user comments I’ve seen online) but I didn’t find it gratuitous. More interesting is Carole’s relationship with Delphine’s mother Monique (Noémie Lvovsky). Carole is motivated by both simple goodwill in enjoying working with Monique, but also by her wish to promote the idea that women can run farms and be leaders in the community. This illustrates the basis for tension in the household as Delphine recognises that she can’t push too hard. The men in the film who are ‘personalised’ (as distinct from those who are physically attacked by the MLF group) are not criticised as such. They are seen as having to deal with what is happening. But the narrative isn’t really interested in them as actors in this particular story.
The narrative resolution of La belle saison is ‘open’ with an optimistic sense of looking forward but it isn’t a conventional ‘happy ending’. The film is nostalgic for those of us who lived through the period and I certainly responded to the long hair and those cheesecloth shirts that took me back to the early 1970s. (Also the Janis Joplin tracks – see the trailer below.) I can understand some of the criticisms of the film but I think that Catherine Corsini succeeded in doing what she set out to do. If you agree and you enjoy this film I would also recommend Corsini’s earlier and later films Partir (Leaving 2009) and Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love 2018), both reviewed on this blog.
Vera Chytilová died in March and Daisies is probably her most celebrated film; it is brilliant. Two Marias (Ivana Karbanova and Jitka Cerhova) waltz through the film on an anarchic romp which starts off with them eating apples. The symbolism is obvious, as is the bananas, sausages and hardboiled egg that they snip at with scissors while a would-be lover claims he’s in love (by which he means lust). It’s slightly peculiar to say that the girls (Peter Hames in The Czechoslovak New Wave states they are 17) are trampling on bourgeois sensibilities in a so-called communist state, but the privileged middle classes obviously existed there too. In a nightclub, where the clientele are being entertained by the Charlston, the Marias randomly drink others wine and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They allow themselves to be taken to restaurants by older men only to bail out before the men have their ‘wicked way’. They also decimate a banquet, evidently laid out for an audience listening to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods (where the bourgeoisie meet their fate).
The film’s epitaph sums it up: ‘This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is trampled on trifle’. There’s plenty of trifle in the final scene, flying around in true slapstick fashion and the anarchic comedy of Max Sennett is clearly a touchstone for Chytilová as parts of the film are speeded up in the manner that ‘silent movies’ used to be. Czech surrealism, such as Jan Svankmajer (in scenes of pixilation – animation using live actors), is also evident as some of the art movements of the 1960s, such as ‘cut ups’. It’s a terrific brew of full of humour and brio and, most of all, feminism.
The film opens, and ends, with images of bombing. I took them to be a reference to the Vietnam war. The girls’ adventure starts by them deciding that everything’s spoiled in the world. Hence, their assault on bourgeois sensibility is an attack on the way the world was at the time; and it’s still like that. Clearly Chytilová was attacking more than trifles.
I was reminiscing about university with a friend and she remembered that she was part of the ‘300 group’ that aimed to get 300 MPs into Parliament. That was over 30 years ago! This film’s nearly 50 years old and the battles for equality between the sexes still need fighting. Young women could do far worse than learn some attitude from these Marias.