Film Reviews

Made in Italy

Directed by James D’Arcy
(U.K., Italy, 2020)

Review by Lois Siegel

Relationships between fathers and sons can be difficult because of circumstances beyond their control. Made in Italy tells the story of London artist Robert (Liam Neeson) who returns to Italy with his estranged son Jack (Micheál Richardson) to sell their once beautiful villa in Tuscany. They have nothing in common. Jack hasn’t been back to the house since he was seven years old. He was sent to a boarding school.

Robert’s wife died in a terrible car crash. He inherited the home from her, but after the accident he couldn’t drive or paint. “I think about my wife every day. I can’t forget.”

Jack didn’t talk about his mother after her death. He had to become a man now. He didn’t cry at the funeral. He didn’t know how to grieve. He locked up all his memories to be out of pain.

The situation is full of challenges for father and son, but at the same time the location is romantic. The music with scenic vistas is charming.

Robert and Jack arrive at the house at night. As they approach the house, the front door falls down. They discover that the villa is in a state of disrepair, having been empty for some 20 years. It will take work to restore it to its previous state and to mend their relationship.

Jack wants to sell the house and use the money to buy an art gallery. He’s separated from his wife and getting a divorce. She’s taking everything. He managed her parent’s art gallery. His father never came to the gallery. “He thinks I’m a failure.”

Robert is a painter. There’s one of his gigantic paintings on a wall in the house, but the ceiling is falling down and rain leaks in. As they start restoring the place, a weasel appears in the sink. They realize it would be good to hire some local workers to get rid of it.

They start painting the walls. For Robert, painting did something for the pain.

Robert and Jack go into Calais to have a good Italian dinner. The restaurant is packed with Italians laughing and having fun. There’s a small band performing – clarinet, drum, bass, guitar. The atmosphere is lovely. An interesting lady runs the restaurant. She tells Robert she learned English from Bugs Bunny cartoons, but then admits this is a lie. She lived in England for a year working in a restaurant.

Later that night, a movie is projected in the square.

Robert: “Everyone lets everyone down at some point. How you come back from that, that’s romance.” There are chance encounters. Both Jack and Robert meet interesting women.

Note: Micheál Richardson is the real-life son of Liam Neeson.

Running time: 120 minutes. Available on disc/streaming.

How To Be a Good Wife

Directed by Martin Provost
(France, 2019)

Review by Paul Green

One wonders whether director Martin Provost, whose previous efforts include such serious biopics as Séraphine (2008) and Violette (2013) about writer Violette Leduc, had an inkling of things to come when he started shooting this film last year. While ostensibly about lofty issues, How To Be a Good Wife (original title: La Bonne épouse) definitely cleaves to the realm of comedic farce. (It occurs to me that a film about Violette Leduc could not possibly be a comedy.)

In 1960s France, many working-class families were still sending their daughters to private finishing schools to spend a year or so learning how to run a proper household and please their husbands, all while accepting with good grace their subordinate position in marriage and in French society.

In the fall of 1967, however, the winds of change are blowing in France, at least in far-off Paris. The Van Der Beck Institute is located in bucolic Alsace, where nefarious influences are still kept at bay. Keeping things humming along is Paulette (an irrepressible Juliette Binoche) whose perky enthusiasm and devotion to the school are perhaps all that’s keeping it afloat. Paulette’s stamina is in marked contrast to the indolence of her husband Robert (François Berléand), ostensibly the school’s owner who seems oddly indifferent to what goes on inside it. Evidently, Robert did not attend a school for husbands. (Alert viewers will recall Berléand as the tyrannical director of a reform school in The Chorus whose mad obsession with discipline ends with the school burning down.)

Flanking Paulette is Robert’s good-natured but gauche sister Gilberte (a Provost regular who was in Séraphine), who, among other things, teaches the girls how to cook. Gilberte has impossibly long, blond hair, perhaps because she has never married. Rounding out the help is the no-nonsense Sister Marie-Thérèse (Noémie Lvovsky) who imposes an iron discipline on the girls while smoking the occasional cigarette.

Alas, the school has fallen on hard times and much depends on the Class of 67 girls – they number about 15 and seem to range in age from 16 to 18. They are a mixed lot, and more than a few of them have been imbibing some of the new ideas wafting out of Paris. There are notable performances from Marie Zabukovec as the rebellious Annie who reminds one of a young Brigitte Bardot and Lily Taieb as Yvette, a shy young woman – she wears glasses –who is distraught at the idea of being forced to marry an older man.

The plot turns when husband Robert unexpectedly exits the scene, improbably carried off by a chicken bone in his sister’s rabbit stew! Learning that the school is in fact bankrupt – Robert had been playing the horses – Paulette and Gilberte have to scramble to keep things going. Enter handsome banker André (a raffish Edouard Baer) who knew and loved Paulette before she was married and, well, things may just work out.

La Bonne épouse is admittedly light fare and, bolstered by ample comedic talent, a good time is had poking fun at the patriarchal mindset that young women in France had to contend with at this time. While it’s not the kind of serious work one might look for to address these issues – say Catherine Corsini’s 2015 film La Belle saison (Summertime) – it doesn’t pretend to be. The tone is a little uneven at times, moving as it does between broad farce and gentle satire, but the cast, particularly Juliette Binoche, makes it work.

The highly improbable ending, where the film threatens to turn into a Jacques Demy musical, and some of the ideas that have been bubbling underneath since the beginning, such as women’s liberation (as feminism was then known) and the sexual revolution, are given vocal expression, is maudlin and feels a bit forced. That said, the combined and contrasting talents of Juliette Binoche, Yolande Moreau and Noémie Lvovsky carry the film quite nicely. Excellent late-summer fare in this year of the pandemic.

Running time: 109 minutes. Probable rating: 14A. In French with English subtitles.

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