The French translation of The Midwife is Sage-femme, literally wise woman. The double meaning is appropriate in describing the titular character of this totally enthralling French film.
Catherine Frot plays Claire, the Midwife, who invests a lot of energy and passion in her work. It leaves little room for anything else, but we glean she has been an attentive single mother to the adult son who has just left home, and what little spare time she has is spent in her veggie garden situated outside the city. Hers is a modest existence.
Into her world comes an unwanted figure from the past, Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve). The two meet up in a Paris bistro in a wonderfully observed scene that highlights their differences and Claire’s reluctance to have anything to do with Béatrice. Béatrice is dolled up in makeup and big hair, smoking and chatting casually with the waiter about which wine will go with her meat dish. You can just feel Claire wants to roll her eyes at what she’s seeing. In contrast, Claire has her hair pulled back, she doesn’t drink, smoke or eat red meat. Her sad eyes and drawn face tell us how little pleasure there is in her life.
This is an indication of things to come, as the film plays like a French Ab Fab with gravitas. Béatrice, a good decade or so older than Claire, gambles, frequents bars and generally lives life with no heed to the consequences, while Claire lives frugally on a steady diet of brown rice and those home grown veggies, she has no love life or any intention to experience sensory pleasures.
Her reasons for wanting to keep Béatrice at arm’s length are soon explained. Béatrice is the other woman that Claire’s father left her mother for. It’s no wonder she doesn’t want her own son, who’s about to get married, to meet her. And yet Béatrice is in the advanced stages of brain cancer, so Claire feels obliged to take her in, since she seems to have burnt every other bridge in her life.
So the film has an in-built comedy factor, with Deneuve having her most wickedly enjoyable role in years, yet it also delivers big on an emotional level too, with Frot’s character confronting issues she’s been avoiding most of her life.
On the surface The Midwife may appear to be a slight, talky affair, audiences may be pleasantly surprised at just how meaty and rewarding it proves to be. Apart from watching two of France’s finest actors at the peak of their powers, this is a highly nuanced study of two individuals reconciling with events of the past while gaining a better understanding of each other.
Writer/director Martin Provost, has a great track record with female-centric films, having made the period dramas Violette and Seraphine. He wrote the roles of Béatrice and Claire with Deneuve and Frot in mind. He’s particularly good at using dialogue to define his characters, and here those characters are so wonderfully realised you wish you could spend more time with them.
Composer Gregoire Hetzel, himself racking up an impressive filmography, delivers another elegant score, with each character receiving his or her own theme. Claire’s theme is beautifully melancholic while Beatrice’s is more robust and baroque. It’s the ideal music accompaniment to a sophisticated and rewarding .
The Midwife is in national release from October 26
Richard Leathem @dickiegee