Every once in a while a minor picture manages to stand out from our cinematic routine, rather than be swallowed up by it. “The Midwife,” by French director Martin Provost (“Seraphine”), is that kind of movie. What might easily have been a formulaic melodrama manages to avoid that trap, in large part thanks to the careful narrative and emotional balance that Provost strikes in the film, which he also wrote.
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“The Midwife” tells the story of two women, Claire (Catherine Frot) and Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve). Claire is a midwife at a financially struggling maternity clinic which may shut down due to the rise of what Claire calls “baby factories.” Claire loves her work, and early in the movie we see the joy that fills her face whenever she helps another newborn emerge into the world. Work may not be her whole life, but she does not do much beyond it: she does not go out, does not drink, and spends most of her time in her garden, tending to her vegetables. Every once in a while she gets a visit from her son, Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), a medical student. Their relationship is warm, but it does not seem very close.
One day Claire receives a surprise phone call from Beatrice, to whom she has not spoken in 30 years. Once upon a time, Beatrice was the lover of Claire’s father, a swimming champion whose life was ruined after Beatrice left him. Now Beatrice wants to meet, and one of the fine aspects of Provost’s film is that the sudden phone call is not made out to be a big, unsettling drama for Claire, though she has every reason to hate Beatrice. Beatrice was once a part of Claire’s life; maybe Claire even liked her, and moreover, she is not the type of person to throw a fit without a good reason. She is steady to the core, and she is also curious to see Beatrice and hear what she has to say.
Beatrice is Claire’s opposite: colorful and extroverted while the younger woman is staid and ordinary-looking. She drinks, smokes, and when the two women first meet at a bistro orders the biggest steak they have. She has spent the last 30 years wandering, probably supported by one man after another, and now the time has come to accept that she is no longer the femme fatale of her youth and to confront her past, due to a secret she reveals to Claire (which is not a big surprise to the audience).
The sharp contrast between them might easily have led “The Midwife” toward familiar formulas, and the secret Beatrice reveals might have filled the movie with melodrama and sentimentality. Provost, however, plays down the emotion in depicting their first encounter: They are two women who once knew each other, parted for many years, and have now crossed paths again. He maintains the same low-key tone as he follows the new relationship that forms between them. Beatrice and Claire have a great deal of emotional baggage to pull them together or push them apart, but instead of using this baggage to create a series of dramatic conflicts, Provost focuses on the everyday routine that develops between the two women, each of whom needed the other in her own way.
A subplot follows Claire’s hesitant romance with Paul (Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet, who has appeared in almost all of the Dardenne brothers’ films), a truck driver whose garden borders on Claire’s. The love story is a bit predictable, but it is saved by the expert performances of Frot and Gourmet. (Frot is known to us from “Haute Cuisine” and “Marguerite,” the latter a French version of the story of Florence Jenkins Foster, who believed herself to be a great opera singer though she had a shrill voice and could not carry a tune; she was played by Meryl Streep in the American version.)
In general, the main reason to watch “The Midwife” is the acting, especially that of the two stars. Frot always radiates an amiable quality, but that does not keep her from crafting her characters with great precision; she manages to convey the nuances of the many emotions that flood Claire when Beatrice returns to her life, most of which she represses. Her performance also allows the film to explore, with the same determined composure, a female solidarity that manages to overcome the hurts of the past using the maturity that comes with age.
Deneuve, too, is marvelous. Her extravagant character might easily have overwhelmed the movie, but Deneuve prevents that from happening. Her performance complements Frot’s restrained one, making the film a duet of two actresses working with and in contrast to each other with remarkable generosity. Beatrice’s character has a comic side, and Deneuve, who has played every kind of role in the course of her long career, again shows her gifts as a comedian able to deliver every single line and, in this case, to blend together the humorous and the poignant. Older viewers among us will enjoy the small appearance by Mylene Demongeot, one of Brigitte Bardot’s main rivals in the 1950s.
Instead of charging at the drama of the story full force, “The Midwife” makes us feel as though we are watching the events from the side, at something of a distance, and this makes the movie moderate and mature. Though it does make a rather schematic connection between the beginning of life, which Claire witnesses every day in her job, and the sense of an impending end, “The Midwife” is still a film that, though minor, puts mainstream materials to wise and decent use.