How To Be A Good Wife (La Bonne Épouse) – French Film Festival UK 2020 – Film Review

With a title sounding like an article from a housekeeping manual, How to Be a Good Wife is a surprising combination of comedy, drama and women’s liberation. Despite concentrating on training generations of girls in the ‘60s to be the ‘perfect housewife’ in the French equivalent of a finishing school in Alsace, there are insights into the concepts of freedom permeating throughout the film, fortunately. If only there could have been more substantial scenes dedicated to this notion of rebellion against the ideals of the institution and patriarchy. However, How to Be a Good Wife is an enjoyable French comedy with a refreshing comedic performance from Juliette Binoche and was highly entertaining as the Opening Night film for the 2020 French Film Festival UK.

Juliette Binoche as Paulette Van der Beck finds that her world is thrown into disarray when her husband, Robert, as the co-owner of the finishing school suddenly dies. Conventionally, the death of a spouse should be a sombre moment but in How To Be a Good Wife the comic threads envelop such scene which may unexpectedly invoke a laugh out loud moment. Binoche in such scenes impresses with her comic flair and enlists the assistance of Robert’s sister Gilberte, who seems rather eccentric, to continue running the school!

Juliette Binoche as Paulette in How To Be A Good Wife
Juliette Binoche as Paulette in How To Be A Good Wife

Directed by Martin Provost, How To Be A Good Wife skirts along the edges of the concepts of financial independence and rights for women. Paulette is granted such freedoms, such as possessing her own bank account and cheque book, after being unaware of the levels of financial ruin her husband had created whilst having sole control of the finances. Whilst How To Be A Good Wife may be set within the ’60s, this state of financial dependence is a commonplace scenario as a modern day affliction. Alice, directed by Josephine Mackerras, equally explores this concept of a wife discovering bankruptcy caused by a weak-willed husband.

As for the girls within the school they are counselled by Paulette, as part of the school’s educational pillars, to be dutiful, obedient, to ‘assess the others before oneself’ and to ‘ensure the family’s reputation and honour’ as well as completing all of the menial tasks. What is lacking within their education is indeed the financial acumen required to maintain a household rather than the emphasis placed on such role being fulfilled by the husband during such era. The notion of having one’s own career, agency and happiness is side-lined in some of the teachings. However, this is exactly the aspirations of some of the girls who, unsurprisingly, outwardly clash with the teachers.

Under Provost’s vision in How To Be A Good Wife, the educational pillars of the school are exhibited, in a slapstick manner, to be outmoded and not fit for purpose. Not all of the girls aspire to marriage after graduating from the school but unfortunately How To Be A Good Wife does not explore a viable alternative for such girls. Instead, despite some sombre moments depicting the teenage angst and pressure faced by the girls, the film refuses to consider those elements with depth and glosses over them. How To Be A Good Wife favours maintaining Paulette’s conservative and reserved approach to contending with such situations, which reflect the rigidity of the institution to her detriment.

How to Be a Good Wife revels in stereotypes – the blonde girl is the coquettish one and the red head is the troublesome enigma, without fully investing in character development. This is unfortunate as several of the girls appear to have interesting backgrounds but are consigned to superficial sub-plots. The film is steeped in melodrama which is amusing in several scenes with over the top declarations of love, when the film embraces the rom-com genre, but this dilutes the film’s message on occasion.

Juliette Binoche as Paulette and Edouard Baer as André in How To Be A Good Wife
Juliette Binoche as Paulette and Edouard Baer as André in How To Be A Good Wife

How To Be A Good Wife has mesmerising cinematography with aesthetically pleasing wide angle shots in the Alsace countryside which evoke that sense of freedom and liberty. It would certainly be very tempting to be running through those fields which look so glorious! That creation of freedom is apt given that the film traverses the eve of the 1968 revolution which has a surprising impact for Paulette, the school and its future. However, such seismic changes for Paulette have a slightly rushed appearance within the film’s denouement but do project
that message of positive change overall.

How To Be A Good Wife is a humorous tale providing a fresh outlook on the fight for the freedoms that we may take for granted and the impact of war on family and relationships. The film is feel-good in nature and whilst it is a departure from the usual roles that Binoche has played, How To Be A Good Wife imbues that sense of progression and hopefulness for all.

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