The Midwife (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye) Running Time: 112 minutes approx.
Life. It’s a funny old game. Whilst it is up to us how we live it, we need help coming into it and help when we are ready to leave it – the problem is that during the latter, we often find ourselves alone.
Claire Breton (Catherine Frot) is a midwife approaching middle age, working at a small clinic that is facing closure but she continues to resist moving to a new modern facility in the city with her colleagues. Her student son Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), who she raised alone, is about to move out with his pregnant girlfriend Lucie (Pauline Parigot) and Claire finds it hard to make new friends.
One night Claire gets a call from Béatrice Sobolevski (Catherine Deneuve), her late father’s former lover who walked on them 30 years earlier for which Claire remains resentful toward her. Claire reluctantly meets up with Béatrice, who reveals she has a brain tumour and needs help to get through it. Despite her deepest reservations, Claire’s good nature compels her to support Béatrice.
Actor turned director Martin Provost leaves the historical biopics he made his directorial name with behind, to focus on modern life, recruiting two of French cinema’s acting heavyweights to help realise this. If the two Catherines facing off against each other is the main attraction for viewing The Midwife, one is not only rewarded with two stunning performances but Provost concocts a poignant story for them to work within to boot.
It might not be an immediate thought but there is an unaddressed irony about a woman whose job and sole pleasure in life is bringing lives into the world has been placed into a situation where she is preparing for someone to exit it. These two ends of the life spectrum rarely meet with such intimacy for most people putting Claire in an unusual position.
Outside of handing goo covered newborns over to their spent mothers, Claire’s only other pleasure is a small vegetable patch at an allotment she shares with Paul (Olivier Gourmet), an amiable truck driver taking over the patch for his ailing father. The inevitable romance blossoms but not as a dominant factor in the story, although a quick bunk up in Paul’s shed provides such gentle humour.
Claire also claims not to drink or eat meat and isn’t very sociable, the polar opposite to Béatrice, a gregarious, confident heavy smoking woman living the fine life of wining, dining and expensive clothes on a budget earned through gambling and the goodwill of her ebullient personality. True to form, Béatrice doesn’t appear to take the gravity of her tumour seriously, despite Claire urging her to drop the fags, booze and red meat, being more scared of losing her hair to chemotherapy.
With no children of her own and many bridges burned, Claire was the only person Béatrice could think of to contact in her desperate hour, making Claire’s bitterness towards her and emphatic rejection a shock. It’s not as if Claire doesn’t have her own problems but like the Good Samaritan she is, Claire eventually relents and takes Béatrice in after her operation.
Thus, the odd couple are forced upon each other and gradually bond, tacitly influencing the other’s life along the way. As unique as the premise is that brings us to this point in the story, Provost has created two well-drawn characters to engage the audience and lift this beyond the conventional melodrama it threatens to be. Not all routes are necessarily followed however, and mawkish sentiment is thankfully eschewed.
Much of it works through Catherine Deneuve playing against type; Béatrice could almost be from the East End of London, such is the boldness of her attire that allows Deneuve to retain her legendary glamour but with a louche, rough edge to her character. She has that innate Del-Boy like charisma where people know they shouldn’t trust her but give into her anyway. The fact she won Claire over is a testament to that.
In essence, Claire is posited as the adult of the relationship, having to “mother” Béatrice about her medicine, drive her everywhere, bail her out of trouble, etc. Her resistance to leaving the clinic suggests a woman unwelcoming towards change, which is exactly what Béatrice brings to her life, just as Simon’s fleeing the nest does, but in the long run, it pans out for the better.
With Paul also on hand, Claire begins to loosen up a little, unwittingly borrowing from Béatrice’s arsenal of using her make-up and perfume, something she usually avoids. It is not revealed how old Claire is supposed to be, Simon’s age would suggest maybe late 40’s at best. Catherine Frot is 61 yet convinces us she belongs in the younger age group. It is remarkable to see Claire’s rejuvenation as the film progresses, her tired, sad looking expression giving way to a fresh faced beaming smile with sparkling glints in her eyes.
Despite the positive changes both women experience and engender in one another, they never abandoned their core personalities or integrity, adding so much to the believable dynamic created by the two Catherines. The fact this comes late in life for both is the enriching part of the whole story as told by two reliable veterans. And they say there are no substantial roles for mature women in films?
Running close to two hours means there are moments of meandering and extraneous filler that should have been excised, but then Provost hits us with a simple scene or two of joyous emotional resonance that earns our forgiveness. The blend of drama and light humour is never jarring and Provost opts for a low-key presentation to ensure nothing overshadows the central performances.
The Midwife doesn’t scale enough heights to be considered profound but is a touching essay on mortality, redemption and moving on. The ending is absolute yet full of hope – I am sure most of us hope we see Frot and Deneuve pair up again soon.
5.1 Surround Sound
Rating – *** ½
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