- Colin Fraser
HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE
TWO STARS Paulette runs a finishing school for young women. It's 1968.
Juliette Binoche, Noémie Lvovsky
COMEDY FRANCE #HOWTOBEAGOODWIFE
Timing, as they say, is everything. Especially so when crafting a ‘satire’ about emerging feminism in rural France, a comedy that includes attempted teenage suicide. And if that wasn’t wobbly enough, this women’s tale is written and directed by Martin Provost which is not to say a man is incapable of depicting a woman’s plight - Pedro Almodovar built a career off the back of women in peril as has François Ozon (if with fewer laughs) - satire is best served with a large side of funny or smarts, preferably both. HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE has little of either and is a perplexing distraction at best.
Some of the blame should, dare I say it, be apportioned to the film’s star and marquee attraction. It’s so rare that Juliette Binoche puts a foot wrong that when she does the misstep seems so much bigger than it probably is. This is such an occasion. Subtlety is her strength, broad comic timing largely eludes her, a situation amplified by co-stars Noémie Lvovsky and Yolande Moreau who fare much better. That said, only some of the blame falls to Binoche. Material as clumsy as this would be difficult for the most seasoned comic.
It’s the mid-60’s. Paulette (Binoche) and her husband run a finishing school for young women in the idyllic French countryside. Her flakey sister-in-law (Moreau) and a vaguely psychotic nun (Lvovsky) help prepare their girls for a future of subjugation. The sudden death of Paulette’s husband reveals her school is in financial ruin, while an affair opens her heart and mind to the nouvelle vague emerging in Paris. Perhaps their time is coming to an end.
The over-arching narrative is a fine vehicle for exploring sexual politics and female liberation, yet the cluttered script has all the panache of a Carry On movie. An endlessly wavering tone leaves audiences perplexed about the direction the film is taking and the points it’s trying to make. Throw in a perpetually miserable teenager who attempts to take her own life, a plot line that’s immediately shrugged off and forgotten about, and the troubles being to coalesce. Paulette’s unanticipated character reload leads to a baffling musical finale that only the most forgiving (or forgetful) viewer could accommodate.
HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE certainly raises a lot of questions. Why are the adults so flamboyant yet the students so muted? Why is their anti-authoritarian streak initially suppressed then embraced? What happened to Paulette and why is she singing in the French countryside? Why are any of them singing? Did Binoche read the script before signing the contract?
To its credit, the film looks great. Provost’s cinematographer, set and costume designers have created some dazzling scenes. Pouring a cup of tea has never looked as sensuous as it does here. Never. But none of this is enough to keep us from large, perplexing and unanswerable head-scratchers that, like a truculent student, continue disrupting Paulette’s orderly classroom.