I think one of the most disappointing things when you are a film lover is sitting down to watch a film only to find that it starts off with promise and then goes downhill rapidly. I can cope with a film that is bad from start to finish, but I get a strong sense of disappointment when I feel like I am enjoying a film until the wheels fall off and everything goes horribly wrong.
New French film How To Be A Good Wife sadly falls into the latter category. From director Martin Provost (Seraphine) the film should be a strong movie about the rise of women’s rights in France. But instead, it becomes a promising film that three quarters of the way through, forgets what genre it wants to be and completely loses its way. Yes, I know films can be absurd but this borders on ridiculous and loses the plot that previously was enchanting its audience.
Set in 1968, the film follows the staff of a French Finishing School where young women are sent to be trained to become ‘good wives.’ The school is run by Paulette Van der Beck (Juliette Binoche) while the finances are looked after by her much older husband, Robert (Francois Berleand). Also on staff are Robert’s kooky sister Gilberte (Yolande Moreau) and Sister Marie-Therese (Noemie Lvovsky) who tries to keep the moral compass with both students and staff.
After a tragic event though, Paulette suddenly finds herself free from her marriage but at the same learns that the school and its relevance in the current society is casting doubt on the school’s future.
Early on, I found the film worked. It worked because it gave us a broad prospective of what was happening. Despite her kookiness, Gilberte is ready to embrace equal rights, the students are divided – some still want to learn to be a ‘good wife’, while others want to change with the society and have the power to explore their sexuality if they wish.
If the film had kept going in this direction and allowed characters to explore what women’s rights meant for them, this could have ended up becoming one of the most important and powerful films of this year. But somewhere along the line the director and screenwriter decided that turning the film into a comedic musical towards the finale would be a good idea. To me, that lost all the power that the film had generated earlier, and the inclusion of Marie-Therese in the musical numbers ended up looking like a lame parody of The Sound Of Music. A film about women’s right needs (and deserves) to be remembered for its strength and courage, not laughed at because the director tried to do something a ‘little different.’
Even with the film working the way it did early on, this does feel like one of Binoche’s weaker performances as she is normally brilliant but here feels like she is just going through the motions. Whereas the ability to mix comedy with dramatic scenes come naturally to Moreau and Lvovsky, who easily over-shadow Binoche with their performances. In fact, I was so surprisingly impressed with Moreau portrayal of the strange but hurt Gilberte, that as soon as I left the cinema I started scrolling through her filmography so I could watch more of her work.
Given the power of the story behind it, How To B A Good Wife should be a film that we are talking about for Oscar contention this year. Instead, it is a film that I would rather forget and never re-visit.