It is 1967. In Alsace, rural France, the Van der Beck’s-Robert, his wife Paulette, and his sister Gilberte-run their eponymously named school teaching young women social graces and housewifery. The school is suddenly thrown into turmoil when Robert dies, leaving behind a pile of unpaid bills.
Writer and director Martin Provost, whose last feature outing was The Midwife, has attempted a quirky comedy with undercurrents of social commentary. And for the most part he succeeds. His deliberate choice of year sets the school’s activities against the background of the civil unrest in France which culminated in May 68 with the general strikes and the occupation of universities. Part of what students were pushing back against was the conservatism of much of French life, personified by the school itself. Provost also comments briefly on Gallic monoculture in a scene where the girls are told off for speaking Alsatian dialect, rather than standard French. And of course, the changing role of women is at the heart of the writing, both in terms of the young women being trained to be good wives, and Paulette’s character who goes from dependent wife, to independent widow.
But rest assured that comedy is to the fore in this offering. The unfailingly brilliant Juliette Binoche clearly has fun with her portrayal of Paulette. Star character actor Yolande Moreau is wonderful as Gilberte. And quietly stealing the show is Noémie Lvovsky as the smoking, gun-toting nun, Marie-Thérèse.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable work from Provost, with plenty of genuine laughs, and enough socio-political commentary to give it some depth. It is only spoilt by an ending that defies description, and was clearly phoned in on a Friday afternoon after a few too many Pernods.
How to be a Good Wife opens on Boxing Day.