The Midwife (2017) / Thriller-Action
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably R for language, sexuality and brief nudity
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourmet, Quentin Dormaire
Director: Martin Provost
Screenplay: Martin Provost
Review published August 16, 2017
The main selling point of The Midwife for some viewers who are fans of French cinema will be the uniting of the two legendary actors named Catherine, Deneuve (8 Women, A Talking Picture) and Frot (Marguerite, Haute Cuisine), on the screen together as a sort of odd couple. Frot plays Claire, who has spent nearly all of her career working as a kind and caring midwife in an era where small operations like hers are making way for corporate health facilities that cater to many. With her financial future becoming increasingly less certain, her life takes an unexpected turn when she meets Beatrice, the mistress of her late father when Claire was in her teenage years, who is suffering from the late stages of brain cancer. Beatrice is searching to reconnect with the father, unaware that he's been dead for many years, triggering now the grief process, feeling lonely and without a human connection except for the person in front of her, who happens to be Claire, someone who has always resented her, but is a compassionate soul.
As with many French dramas, The Midwife, (the French term is more apt, 'sage femme', or, woman of wisdom) is more of a layered character study full of pithy and poignant conversations than it is pushed by its need for plot-driven narrative. Written and directed by Martin Provost (Violette, Seraphine), who had these actors in mind when writing the roles not knowing if they would do it, he knows well enough that these are actresses who will sell the material through grounded but lively performances, with enough nuances to make them fascinating to observe, even when they aren't doing much talking at all. As hedonistic Beatrice is beginning to question her own careless actions, which sometimes brought more trouble than comfort (and possibly was the catalyst for her lover's suicide), while perpetual caretaker Claire must confront being less careful about every action, wondering if doing everything possible to prolong her life is preventing her from ever truly living it.
Frot gives her all, in particular in training in a maternity ward and then being present to help with the delivery of a few real-life births to being some authenticity to the screen, though quite gracious in not trying to overpower Deneuve, who gets the flashier of the two characters to inhabit. She seems uneasy by those who ask her to budge an inch outside of her comfort zone, though she knows that with things changing in her career and relationships, she must find a way to settle again into a state of happiness with what's going on. Despite having emotional beats, Provost's film shuns overt sentimentality, writing the film with these actresses strengths in mind, based on the personalities on some of the women around him in his life, including one dying of cancer. Sometimes it takes just as much care to welcome someone into the next life as it does to welcome them to their current one.
The Midwife is perhaps only largely memorable for having two major French actresses of different generations in the same movie than it is as its own story, so your ability to enjoy it will likely come down to how much you revere Frot and Deneuve, who are working for the first time together, despite both actresses working in the French film industry for decades. If you're a major fan, this will be a fan-fueled delight. If you're new to them and merely just watch this as a straightforward French-language drama, it will be interesting but not quite spectacular, with good performances and insights but , alas, not nearly as memorable.
©2017 Vince Leo