How to Be a Good Wife (La bonne épouse)
Directed by Martin Provost
Review by Sarah List
French with English subtitles
1967 was tumultuous the world over, and the unease had spread as far as to the sleepy corner of the Alsace region of France, where Paulette van der Beck (Juliette Binoche) and husband Robert (François Berléand) helm the School of Good Manners. Ostensibly, this is a school to train women to be future ‘good wives’ and domestic goddesses, that run a household that cushions their husbands from the stresses of the outside world, all while turning a blind eye you’re their extramarital dalliances and drinking. Enrolments had been declining precipitously the recent years, to the point where they had just a dozen scholars. Despite her enthusiasm, there’s evidence that Paulette’s unwavering belief in the curriculum is wavering as her husband leers at the girls during the day and then expects Paulette to do her wifely duties at night. The sudden death of her husband Robert reveals the deep financial debt of the school due to his gambling addiction, and full light is shone on to the vulnerability of being one such ‘good wife’.
The unrest is an allegory for Paulette’s own inner turmoil, which is edged forward by the anxieties and experimentation of the enrolled girls. The reemergence of past love/white knight banker André (Edouard Baer) adds spice.
Ultimately, however, the film is uneven and overly long at almost 2 hours. There’s such potential to have embellished further the characters of the students and André to add a richer understanding towards the choices they make during the film, but they remain sketched outlines while the focus heavily remains on Paulette. Whilst heartwarming and humorous, How to be a Good Wife doesn’t fire fully as it intends.
Words by Sarah List