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How to be a Good Wife

"a perfect midwinter treat for lovers of French farce"

★★★½ - STUFF 

- Juliette Binoche shines in treat for French farce lovers - 

For more than two decades, Alsace’s prestigious Van der Beck’s School of Housekeeping and Good Manners has been training teenage girls to become perfect housewives.

However, lately the numbers enrolling have been falling, as the Swinging ‘60s means French women are increasingly marching to the beat of a very different drum.

With its increasingly outdated mandate and curriculum (despite its patron still being Yvonne de Gaulle, the wife of France’s president Charles), it has struggled to keep up with the changing times. 

Amongst the 15 students embarking on the patented two-year programme to learn “the seven pillars to delight their future husbands” is one that has cookery tutor Gilberte (Yolande Moreau) and spiritual advisor Marie-Thérèse (Naomie Lvovsky) greatly vexed.

“We have a redhead,” frets Gilberte. “She’ll turn the sauces.”

Concerned that she’ll also jinx the school, Marie-Thérèse offers to nail a cross above her bed.

Headmistress Paulette (Juliette Binoche) though, has no such concerns, dismissing their objections as superstitions – that is until her husband Robert (François Berléand) fatally chokes on a rogue bone in the rabbit stew prepared by this year’s class.

Worse still, a post-mortem investigation into the school’s finances he so closely guarded reveals they are more than 20,000 Francs in debt, money gambled away on a large number of horse races.

As Paulette contemplates ruination and closure, help comes from an unexpected source, bank manager André Grunvald (Edouard Baer). But, as a former beau who still holds a candle for her, his assistance will come at a price.

A kind of a cross between St Trinians and Call the MidwifeHow to Be a Good Wife is a perfect midwinter treat for lovers of French farce.

The luminous Binoche and company deliver heightened performances that make the most of writers Martin Provost (who also directs) and Severine Werba’s broad-humoured script. Subtlety is most certainly not du jour in this fast-paced, somewhat chaotic period comedy.

Much of the humour though, actually comes from Paulette and her fellow teachers’ “advice” to their young charges, while the costuming and production design is top-notch.

The little-bit-too-tidy ending and musical denouement may be too much for some, but there are certainly enough memorable moments – and Binoche – to make this worth considering venturing out for.

How to be a Good Wife is now playing at Light House Petone and Cuba! 
(In French with English subtitles.)

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