Published Oct 05, 2020Martin Provost's How to Be a Good Wife is a film that embodies "Vive la révolution!" It's not an unfamiliar premise in its critiques gender norms, a subject that's been tackled on film many times before. What makes the film different, however, is where it takes place. As it begins, text appears on the screen to remind us – not that we need it – that young girls were destined to be wives and perfect mothers. They were sent to schools specializing in making proper women out of them — which is to say, as homemakers. The film is set in one of those century-old housekeeping schools that contributed to this archaic mindset. But in 1968, these hallowed halls can't escape the sweeping power of women's liberation.
Headmistress Paulette Van der Beck (Juliette Binoche), and teachers Gilberte (Yolande Moreau) and Sister Marie-Thérèse (Noémie Lvovsky), welcome a new school year with a new group of blossoming flowers to prune. These students are presented with a list of lessons to retain, including being trained in cleaning, sewing, cooking, ironing – all the things a good housewife needs to know. Having fun seems to be the last thing these girls are allowed to do, but they're young women born of a new generation of rebels in a changing France. They want to explore their sexuality and they have bigger dreams than settling down with a husband not of their choosing. These freedom-searchers test the institution and the women who run it.
It's interesting to note, though, that Paulette and her sister-in-law, Gilberte, seem to possess opposing qualities to what they preach. Gilberte is a carefree spinster and Paulette is a housewife herself who has no real interest in pleasing her husband. As the film goes on, how the societal restraints imposed on women at the time, and even now, do more harm than good results in the film's main conflict: the bankruptcy of the school. Paulette's husband, who believed women had no right to be in charge of the books, gambled all his money away leaving his wife to deal with the mess upon his death. This newfound independence challenges her beliefs on love and marriage and cracks the foundation of her school and its principles.
Like his last film, The Midwife, Provost points a lens on the lives of middle-aged women, and he couldn't have cast a group of funnier ladies. Binoche, Moreau and Lvovsky bring all the comedy in their melodramatic performances (and no other actor has made pouring tea look as sexy as Binoche does here). There are a few male characters, but they feel so insignificant to the women of the film that it's almost like we're seeing an iteration of The Women – a film that may be all about men, but its heart is all woman. They cast a wonderful group of young actors as the students, and there's a touching exploration of young love that forms between two of them.
How to Be a Good Wife ends on a random, misplaced Jacques Demy-esque musical number, but there's no denying the feel-good aspect to it, something the film carries all the way through to its walk to revolution. (Memento Films)