Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Martin Provost
Stars: Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourmet, Quentin Dolmaine.
A tale of two Catherines?
This slight French melodrama boasting solid performances from two of the country’s most formidable and iconic actresses screened at the French Film Festival earlier in the year and now gains a limited commercial release. The Midwife was written especially for France’s most beloved actresses in the veteran Catherine Deneuve, who has been an iconic star of cinema for several decades, and Catherine Frot, who was so wonderful in the recent Marguerite.
Claire Breton (played by Frot) is a single mother who works as a midwife delivering babies at a local clinic. The financially unviable clinic is due to be closed down, but Claire is reluctant to work at a new, high-tech hospital, which she feels is little more than a baby factory that lacks the personal touch. Her college aged son Simon (Quentin Dolmaine) is about to leave home and move into an apartment with his girlfriend Lucie. The reserved and cautious Claire is about to be left alone for the first time in her life, and is unsure how to handle it.
Into her life comes Beatrice (Deneuve), her late father’s former mistress who fled the relationship thirty years earlier and has not been in contact since. Beatrice is a bit eccentric and self-absorbed, but diagnosed with terminal brain cancer she is determined to make amends for her past failings. The two women are polar opposites. Beatrice is vivacious, loud, carefree, outspoken, loves a drink and eats meat, whereas Claire is quiet and reserved and, at first, resentful of Beatrice. However, the frosty relationship between the two women slowly thaws. Meanwhile Claire also works at a local community garden, where she meets Paul (Olivier Gourmet), a middle-aged truck driver, and begins a relationship and maybe finds happiness.
Written and directed by Martin Provost, The Midwife is a gentle film about love, forgiveness, grief, loneliness, mortality, regrets, and facing up to the past. With films like Seraphine, Provost has demonstrated that he knows how to develop films featuring strong female characters and he understands the emotional challenges they face in life, and their failings and frailties. The Midwife is no exception, although the film is slow paced and at times indulgent. It is also a little repetitive and dull as not a lot happens. Provost’s direction is at best workmanlike and pedestrian. There are several scenes depicting the birth of babies, and these are realistic and confronting. Not surprisingly, as Provost actually shot real deliveries, and Frot herself delivered several babies during the shooting of the film, which lends realism to the drama.
However, the film is enlivened by the two central performances, and there is a strong chemistry between Frot and Deneuve as they depict the contrasting personalities of the two women. They bring a sense of tension to the relationship. Frot delivers a nice, subtly nuanced performance and invests her character with a sense of honesty and truthfulness, and she also brings a weary, lived in quality to her role. Over several decades, Deneuve has refused to be pigeon holed as an actress. In her best role for several years, she brings a vulnerability to her performance as Beatrice, as well as a touch of grace and gravitas.
The French title of the film is Sage Femme, which has a nice double meaning. Not only does it translate broadly to midwife, but it also indicates that Claire finds wisdom through her prickly relationship with Beatrice.