La Bonne Epouse (How to Be a Good Wife) French Film Festival at Home

I have to confess this film has left me somewhat puzzled. Not in the least as to how Juliette Binoche came to be starring in what feels at times like a French Carry On Emancipating.

Paulette van der Beck (Binoche) and husband Robert (François Berléand) run a school of good housekeeping in Alsace in the late ‘60s. (Apparently there were over 1,000 such establishments in France around that time…you learn something every day!) Families sent their teenage daughters to these schools, where they learnt cooking, sewing etc in order that they might become desirable wife material.

Robert’s sudden death at the dinner table leaves Paulette running the school with only cooking teacher Gilberte, Robert’s sister and aged nun Sister Marie-Therese to help. But a shock awaits when Paulette sees the accounts for the first time (men handle these things, dear, don’t you worry about things like that, off to the kitchen with you). Robert, unfortunately, has not handled things at all well, and the school is drowning in debt.

But all money worries disappear when Paulette and Gilberte go to the bank. For banker Andre (Eduard Baer) waves away their worries and issues Paulette with a cheque book in her own name and a new account and lo! no more debt. I’m transferring my account there tomorrow. Ah, perhaps not, as it transpires that the reason for this largesse is that Andre has been besotted with Paulette for many years.

If what I’ve written so far seems flippant, then it suits the uncertain and uneven tone of the film. Director Martin Provost does not seem to have the deftness of touch that comedy such as this requires, Robert’s death and the student who attempts suicide to avoid an arranged marriage sit badly with the general tone of the film, likewise the “catch up” session of wartime memories Paulette and Andre share.

The pupils are mostly sketchily drawn, only four of them really feature, and, although charming, they’re portrayed as stock characters – the bold one who sneaks out at night to be with her boyfriend, the two who kiss and fall in love…

Much might be forgiven, though, if the wit was sparkling and we could chuckle our way through the movie, but that just doesn’t happen. And there is, underneath the surface, the idea that all Paulette needed to free her was the love of a good man. And the curious finale, a mass song and dance routine on a country road, comes out of nowhere, and it, too, jars with the rest of the film. Forgive me, M Provost, but perhaps what this movie needed was a woman’s hand on the tiller.

Jim Welsh

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