Director puts femmes to the fore

Martin Provost on Juliette Binoche, gender divisions and revolution

by Richard Mowe

In the driving seat: Yolande Moreau (behind left), Noémie Lvovsky and Juliette Binoche (front) in How To Be A Good Wife by Martin Provost
In the driving seat: Yolande Moreau (behind left), Noémie Lvovsky and Juliette Binoche (front) in How To Be A Good Wife by Martin Provost Photo: UniFrance

As a mere male, director Martin Provost has demonstrated his feminist credentials long before Me Too made it fashionable and politic to do so. In Séraphine, winner of seven Césars (the French Oscars) he explored the life of an outsider artist unforgettably incarnated by Yolande Moreau. With The Midwife (Sage Femme) he united Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve as they confront life’s shifting sands. En route there was also his portrait of writer Violette Leduc with Emmanuelle Devos as the contemporary and protegé of Simone de Beauvoir.

Martin Provost: "My strong feminist streak comes from my mother. She was more important in my life
 than my father …”
Martin Provost: "My strong feminist streak comes from my mother. She was more important in my life than my father …” Photo: UniFrance

Provost’s new film How To Be A Good Wife is distinctly different and lighter in tone but also deals with women seeking emancipation and levelling the gender divide. It’s an ensemble piece with Juliette Binoche showing off her comic talents as Paulette van der Beek, head of a school for good housekeeping in 1967 Alsace, whose aim is to turn her young charges into traditional domestic wives. She’s assisted in her endeavours by her husband’s sister, played by Yolande Moreau, and Noémie Lvovsky as an authoritarian nun.

Provost embarked on the production fairly rapidly after another much darker subject fell by the wayside. By chance he had met an elderly woman who told him about the domestic school she attended as a teenager growing up in the North of France. “It struck a chord in me … She told me that for her final exams one of her tasks was to go off and kill a rabbit … and despite her misgivings she had managed to do it. I was completely entranced. When I returned home to my computer I typed ecole menagère (domestic school) into a search engine and stumbled on a host of shorts films about such schools in the Fifties and Sixties and discovered a world that has almost disappeared although it wasn’t all that long ago. It was a world that was both scary and funny but in these films it was presents from colourful and joyful point of view.”

Working with his co-scriptwriter Séverine Werba (acclaimed for the French TV series Cannabis) Provost set about recreating the quirky ambience of these institutions. “I came from a fairly bourgeois and conservative background. My mother’s main role was domestic duties, whose opinion did not count for much. If she expressed a view my father would roll his eyes. I was around 11 when the protest events of May 1968 unfurled in France and seemed set to overturn the existing order. My mother started stockpiling sugar and pasta and even though at the time we were living in Brest far away from Paris it felt like the revolution was coming,” recalls Provost.

“My strong feminist streak comes from my mother. She was more important in my life than my father and I had more in sympathy with her and my grandmother and sister than with my father or other males. She was a staunch ally against my father who was authoritarian and strict. He considered me rather girly and artistic yet looking back now that opposition to my father was very formative.”

Juliette Binoche breaks free with her old flame (Edouard Baer) in How To Be A Good Wife by Martin Provost
Juliette Binoche breaks free with her old flame (Edouard Baer) in How To Be A Good Wife by Martin Provost Photo: UniFrance

Provost wrote the script with each of the main actors in mind. “Juliette had a very precise idea of her character which wasn’t necessarily mine. I remember on the first day of try-outs I was a bit taken aback when I saw her exaggerated look. I had imagined her much more sombre. She managed to manipulate me very politely so I decided to combine what she had brought to the table with my own ideas. When you have a wonderful actor you have to allow a certain flexibility and then lead them discreetly towards the way you want them to develop. I managed to knit together all the elements without any clash,” he said.

He was interested to get the reactions of the younger members of the cast who were playing the pupils. While he was involved in the casting process he heard from many of the candidates that they were aware of the schools from talking about them with their grandmothers. “Many of them came with exercise books that had been handed down over the generations. When I presented the film at screenings during the release I was struck by the make-up of the audience - there were just as many youngsters as more mature people and they were fascinated and engaged by the subject.”

Lining up for an avant-premiere in Paris: Noémie Lvovsky, Juliette Binoche and Martin Provost
Lining up for an avant-premiere in Paris: Noémie Lvovsky, Juliette Binoche and Martin Provost Photo: Richard Mowe

The film concludes with a big musical number which took almost six months to get right. He was not tempted to try to inject more numbers into the film in the way of Jacques Demy. “It was huge and complicated to do and took almost six months to get right. Originally the idea was much more ambitious with a cast of thousands of women marching on Paris. I not sure I would never get the budget to do a musical because the demands would be colossal. I won’t hide the fact that perhaps one day I would like to give it a try … and Juliette and I have talked about it.”

Instead he is busy finalising a new film with Isabelle Huppert due to shoot in September should Covid restrictions allow. Hidden away in deepest rural France Provost finds he has few distractions to lead him astray.

How To Be A Good Wife has its UK premiere as part of the French Film Festival at home on Friday 27 November from 19.30.

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