In Martin Provost’s very wachable The Midwife two outstanding actresses confront birth, life, love and death – as well as each other.
Catherine the Greatby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s something overwhelmingly nice and extremely watchable about the great acting in The Midwife that makes it well worth seeking out.
Catherine Frot (Marguerite) is Claire, a conscientious, caring midwife of many years’ experience, at the top of her game. We see her officiating professionally at several real births in the clinic where she works. She doesn’t drink or smoke and eats healthy food grown on her allotment: her life is dedicated to her work on the graveyard shift – which she cycles to and from. In fact the French for midwife, sage-femme, which is the film’s original title, could also be translated as ‘good’ or ‘well-behaved woman’. Claire’s routine is suddenly turned upside down by the reappearance out of the blue after 30 years’ absence of Béatrice – screen icon Catherine Deneuve, playing with great relish the uncharacteristic role of a reckless, spendthrift sensualist with a greedy appetite for life. The two women could not be more different – gambling vs cautious – but slowly the connection between the them is revealed, why Béatrice has come back and also the reason for Claire’s open hostility to Béatrice, a former mistress of her father, which Béatrice is desperately trying to overcome with flamboyant generosity.
So the film charts the up-and-down trajectory of the growing relationship between the two women, as Claire starts to unbend and forgive the past and Béatrice – who has not long to live and is squeezing every morsel of pleasure she can out of life – shows her how it is meant to be enjoyed. Along the way, there’s a new relationship with an understanding, sensitive long-distance lorry driver (Olivier Gourmet), an unsettling input from Claire’s medical student son Simon (Quentin Dolmaire) and his girlfriend (Pauline Parigot) and side swipes at the soulless direction that Claire’s beloved profession is taking, where in the new hi-tech clinic her experience will count for nothing and she will be a birth technician not a midwife.
The Midwife, by the director of Violette and Seraphine, is well worth watching for the two Catherines’ performances alone and the face-off between two formidable actresses. Supportive, late-life, male love interest Olivier Gourmet, encouraging self-expression, is also strangely appealing. And the film’s themes of birth and death eventually entwine into an ending that’s low key, potentially tragic yet actually life affirming.
The Midwife premiered at the Berlinale and is released on 7 July 2017 in the UK.