Tuesday, August 22, 2017

August '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Golden Age
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Bel Air)
The Bolshoi Ballet’s thoroughly delightful Golden Age, based on ridiculously catchy music by Dmitri Shostakovich, displays the company at its best with spiffy costuming, clever sets and some effortlessly stupendous dancing. In choreographer Alexander Ekman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, only the title is Shakespeare’s: the music isn’t Mendelssohn’s classic score but a lukewarm one by Mikael Karlsson that doesn’t seem to challenge the men and women of the Royal Swedish Ballet, who still do their damnedest to make it work. Both discs include first-rate hi-def video and audio. The lone Dream extra is an Ekman interview.

Meantime
(Criterion)
In Mike Leigh’s 1984 television film, a working-class family deals with the effects of Margaret Thatcher’s regime, including skyrocketing unemployment and a possible youthful alternative like skinheads. Although ragged around the edges, this biting comedy-drama from the always political Leigh is a fine lead-in to his two best films, 1988’s High Hopes and 1991’s Life Is Sweet—both of which deserve a Criterion release—and also a great showcase for an array of young acting talent, including Tim Roth and (in his debut) Gary Oldman. The Criterion hi-def transfer is decent enough (this is, after all, an early ‘80s British TV film); extras are new interviews with Leigh and actress Marion Bailey and a 2007 Roth interview.

La Poison 
(Criterion)
In Sacha Guitry’s jet-black but precise comedy, French great Michel Simon and Germaine Reuver play long-wedded spouses who’ve grown to loathe each other so much that they discuss how they will off each other—until she ends up dead and he is taken to court charged with her murder. Guitry’s poison pen is as sharp as ever, notwithstanding a sentimental opening credit sequence unlike any you’ve seen (unless you know other Guitry movies). Simon is superbly expressive, unsurprisingly, as is Reuver as his unlucky wife. Criterion’s hi-def transfer of this 1951 B&W film is nothing short of dazzling; extras comprise an hour-long 2010 documentary, Life On-Screen: Miseries and Splendour of a Monarch, about Guitry and Simon’s collaborations; an hour-long episode of French television series Cineaste de Notre Temps from 1965 about Guitry (who died in 1957); and an interview with an unabashed Guitry fan, director Olivier Assayas.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Broadway Review—Michael Moore’s “The Terms of My Surrender”

The Terms of My Surrender
Written and performed by Michael Moore; directed by Michael Mayer
Performances through October 22, 2017
Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, New York, NY
MichaelMooreOnBroadway.com

Michael Moore in The Terms of My Surrender (photo: Joan Marcus)
In the nearly 30 years since his muckraking documentary Roger and Me made him famous, Michael Moore has perfectly honed his style of man-on-the-street reportage and progressive advocacy, including books (Downsize This!, Stupid White Men), television (TV Nation, The Awful Truth) and more documentaries, including Oscar winner Bowling for Columbine and Cannes Palme d’Or winner Fahrenheit 9/11.

Now he’s taken his act to Broadway, where, to put it mildly, he preaches to the already converted. But he doesn’t care: The Terms of My Surrender has the same strengths and weaknesses of Moore’s other work. The formula is the same: the shambling, baseball-cap wearing everyman walks onto the stage and begins his shtick, which includes corny, obvious jokes—like a game show that pits two audience members against each other, a so-called dumb Canadian and a so-called smart American—that alternate with on-target political satire and analysis.

Sure, he can be self-aggrandizing, but when he discusses himself, it’s in the context of what he sees as the greater good. For instance, in high school, he was the youngest ever member of the local Flint school board at age 17, and he shamed the Elks Lodge by winning an Abe Lincoln essay contest decrying the Elks as a whites-only institution. His point—and he has one—is that, in the age of Trump, if people are angry or shocked by what happened in November and what’s been happening since January, then there are things everyone can do to help ensure that the House and even the Senate flip in 2018 and the White House flips in 2020.

Moore knows his audience includes many people upset and embarrassed by Trump’s victory who nevertheless won’t do much to affect any meaningful change, so he tells stories, makes jokes and insults Trump to prod them to take matters into their own hands by making calls to their Congress people or running for local office or doing anything to help the country heal (not heel, as Trump’s tweets would have it) and move forward.

Of course, Michael Moore appearing on Broadway isn’t for everyone, and those people know who they are. But in Michael Mayer’s slick staging, the slightly overlong The Terms of My Surrender (the Dancing with the Stars finale has got to go!) is a funny, thoughtful and even cathartic time in the theater for anyone still stunned by the results of November 8.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

August '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
After the Storm
(Film Movement)
Although he’s made memorable dramas about family bonds (Still Walking; Like Father Like Son), Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda comes up short with his latest about Ryota, a writer and gambler behind on support payments for his son. As always, Kore-eda has enormous sympathy or every character, and Hiroshi Abe’s sensitive portrayal beautifully balances Ryota’s irresponsibility with half-hearted attempts to mend fences, letting us root for him even as he keeps screwing up. But Kore-eda’s insight into tempestuous family relationships is only intermittent, despite wonderful moments scattered throughout, especially in the final rainstorm scenes. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras are a 75-minute making-of documentary and a short film, The Last Dream, by directors Noemie Nakai and Carmen Kobayashi.

Beatrice et Benedict
(Opus Arte)
French director Laurent Pally’s amusing 2016 production of Hector Berlioz’s charming opera based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing juggles with, but doesn’t puncture, either the Bard or the composer, and the result is an unalloyed delight. As the eponymous haters-turned-lovers, American Paul Appleby and French soprano Stephanie d’Oustrac are perfect together and apart, while Sophie Karthauser provides winsome support as the aptly-named Hero. Hi-def video and audio are superb; lone extra is a backstage featurette.

Everything, Everything 
(Warner Bros)
I know, I know: I’m not the target audience for this treacly adaptation of a YA novel by Nicola Yoon. But even teens and pre-teens surely see the contrivance and melodrama of a plot about a teenage girl stuck in her house since she was a baby due to a damaged auto-immune system who finds love—and freedom—when the new cute boy next door notices her. Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson are good and Anika Noni Rose as the over-protective mom is superb, but the movie never breaks out of its cutesy trajectory from the first frame. The film looks quite good on Blu; extras are deleted scenes and featurettes.

Freebie and the Bean
(Warner Archive)
Richard Rush—who went on to direct the dazzling 1980 feature The Stunt Man—helmed this ramshackle, politically incorrect but eminently watchable comic drama about a couple of borderline-inept detectives who fight each other more than they track down criminals. James Caan and Alan Arkin are at the top of their game, while Rush dazzlingly uses San Francisco locations for several daring car chases all the more impressive for their authenticity, unlike fake, CGI-laden sequences proliferating today. Warner Archive’s hi-def transfer is first-rate.

The Zodiac Killer 
(AGFA)
Low-budget doesn’t begin to describe the Z-movie specs of Tom Hanson’s 1971 drama that ineptly but earnestly tries to dramatize the horrifying drama of the infamous murderer that terrorized the Bay Area: amateurish acting, distaff writing and non-existent directing all sink it. The Blu-ray—which shows off a messy surviving print in hi-def—also includes an equally risible feature, Another Son of Sam (1977), director’s commentary and retrospective interviews.

DVDs of the Week
The Summer of All My Parents
Louise on the Shore
(First Run)
In one-named director Diasteme’s intimate character study, The Summer of All My Parents, teenage sisters—one 17, the other 14—must deal with their own (and their sister’s) sexual confusion and their divorced parents’ new lives; a superlative cast led by two remarkable young actresses as the sisters, Luna Lou and Alma Jodorowsky hits all the right marks. Louise on the Shore, Jean-Francois Lagionie’s inventive animated film, about a 70-ish woman who finds herself alone after a freak storm at her usual vacation spot strands her, is filled with spare, lovely touches (including a talking dog companion) that make this far more than a mere kids’ flick.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Off-Broadway Review—Bruce Norris’s “A Parallelogram”

A Parallelogram
Written by Bruce Norris; directed by Michael Greif
Performances through August 20, 2017
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
2st.com

The cast of A Parallelogram (photo: Joan Marcus)
Although cleverly constructed, the plays of Bruce Norris usually offer little more than surface dazzlement, like his most famous play, Clybourne Park, a Pulitzer and Tony winner that piggybacked on A Raisin in the Sun with unilluminating discussions about race relations.

A Parallelogram—written around the same time as Clybourne Park but just receiving its New York premiere—is a half-baked attempt to merge sci-fi fantasy with the playwright’s usual preoccupations of strained relationships and deconstructing language. Its characters comprise Bee, her boyfriend Jay, their landscaper (and Bee’s future boyfriend) JJ, and Bee’s future self Bee 2—an elderly woman with a remote of sorts who can rewind Bee’s life to replay events with different outcomes—who also becomes Bee 3 and Bee 4 at other moments. (Why not just call her BB and give the names perfect symmetry?)

Norris, who has no particular feel for writing a Twilight Zone comedy-drama hybrid, ends his ill-conceived play with a bathetic speech by Bee about the tiny pleasures in our lives: 

“If just for one tiny little moment I make things nicer—wait wait wait—oh oh oh oh oh oh—so, why not go back to the very beginning and just be nice to people—and yes, it’s true, I’m not a nice person, but they don’t know that! So even if it’s a lie and totally fake and we’re all just deluded and lying to ourselves, still—doesn’t that count for something? At least we can pretend.”

As the above shows, A Parallelogram is two-plus hours of strained whimsy that alternates with pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo while it replays events in Bee’s life. After some amusing early moments when Bee and Jay repeat scenes from their relationship, there’s little here penetrating enough to sit through once, let alone multiple times with minor variations.

Still, the cast makes things percolate intermittently. Though saddled by the unlikeable Bee, Celia Keenan-Bolger gives a drolly comic performance, while Stephen Kunken amusingly makes Jay’s repeated lines—despite diminishing returns—sound like they mean something. Anita Gillette’s various Bees (2, 3 and 4) remain delightful even while bearing the brunt of Norris’s hackneyed direct address to the audience and non-explanations for her time-shifting device. Only poor Juan Castano as JJ can’t comically navigate Norris’s surprisingly tone-deaf Latino character, who even says—I kid you not—Whatsamatter witchoo?”


Michael Greif directs adroitly on Rachel Hauck’s set, which effortlessly morphs from one location to another with the agility the writing lacks. There’s a mild attempt by Norris to address his preoccupation with language when Bee and Jay argue about what the terms “bevy” and “brace” refer to, but even there his heart doesn’t seem to be in it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

August '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
King Arthur—Legend of the Sword
(Warner Bros)
Guy Ritchie’s turgid version of the Excalibur legend favors the supernatural elements—witches, monsters, the Demon Knight—over the battling humans, with the unfortunate result that this spectacle is more enervating than entertaining. And, despite solid work by a cast that actually looks right—Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Djimon Hounsou and Annabelle Wallis, for starters—Ritchie unsurprisingly slathers CGI over everything, allowing several rousing battle sequences to overwhelm the characters that are at the center of this timeless story. The film looks great on Blu-ray; extras are several featurettes.

Beyond the Darkness
Bag Boy Lover Boy
(Severin)
Lovers of gory flicks will be in heaven with these new releases, starting with Beyond the Darkness, Italian director Joe D’Amato’s pulverizingly nasty 1979 thriller that features incest, necrophilia, dismemberment and other fun things to keep its target audiences reasonably entertained, especially a sequence that includes a post-mortem eye operation. Bag Boy, conversely, is a shoddy mess that tells the tale of a slow-witted Manhattan hot-dog vendor who moonlights as a fetish model, enabling him to lure several of the most unsuspecting to their deaths. Both films look fine in hi-def; Darkness extras are a D’Amato documentary, location updates and interviews, while Bag extras are a commentary and short films.

Jane’s Addiction—Ritual de lo Habitual Alive at Twenty-Five
(Rock Fuel Media/MVD)
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of its seminal album Ritual de lo Habitual (even though it was released in 1990), Jane’s Addiction—fronted by singer/songwriter Perry Ferrell—tears through a superbly-paced 85-minute set at this 2016 concert at Southern California’s Irving Meadows Amphitheatre. The incredibly tight band comprises guitarist Dave Navarro, bassist Chris Chaney and drummer Steven Perkins, and Ferrell is in top vocal shape throughout, with standouts being the opener “Stop!” and audience favorite “Been Caught Stealing.” The hi-def image and especially audio are top-notch; the three-disc set also includes the concert on DVD and CD.

Re-Animator
(Arrow)
Steve Gordon’s tongue-in-cheek 1985 horror flick is loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft novella, but blood, guts and the ick factor are ramped up to eleven. There’s an amusing schadenfreude watching various characters meet their deaths, only to be brought back to life as zombies that are quite unlike George Romero’s. Despite the lunacy, there’s a healthy sense of dark humor, a no-brainer when you’re dealing with a reanimated doctor who carries around his own decapitated head. Standing out in a game cast is Barbara Crampton as our hero’s beautiful fiancée. Arrow’s thorough set includes two cuts of the film, audio commentaries and featurettes, all encased in an attractive box that even has a selection of postcards.

DVDs of the Week 
In the Shadow of Women
Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman
(Icarus)
He’s been a critics’ and film festival darling for decades, but French director Phillippe Garrel makes films that strike me as amateurish, half-baked explorations of relationships, and his latest In the Shadow of Women continues his string of stiffly-acted, superficial dramas. Leading man Stanislas Merhar is less talented than the director’s mediocre son Louis, whose merely dull presence is sorely missed. In Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman, the late Belgian director’s 1997 self-portrait, she begins by reading from a text about her problems making this film, then shows clips from her best-known film, Jeanne Dielman, along with several others. Non-fans will find it self-indulgent, but your mileage may vary if you’re an admirer.

Wolves
(IFC Films)
A star Manhattan high school basketball player juggles a pregnant girlfriend, a gambling dad, a clueless mom and his own college prep in Bart Freundlich’s one-note melodrama which reaches its nadir in a contrived one-on-one game between father and son that pales next to a similar scene scene in The Great Santini. What Freundlich lacks in expressive writing he compensates for in casting and location scouting: Michael Shannon (dad), Taylor John Smith (son), Carla Gugino (mom) and Zazie Beetz (girlfriend) are all admirable, and the famed Greenwich Village basketball courts provide vital atmosphere.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Theater Review—“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Central Park

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Lear deBessonet
Performances through August 13, 2017
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY
shakespeareinthepark.org

Annaleigh Ashford and Alex Hernandez in A Midsummer Night's Dream (photo: Joan Marcus)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is always tricky to stage, as Shakespeare juggles several disparate subplots that almost, but not quite, mesh together. There’s the enchanted world of the fairies, the low-brow bumbling of the “mechanicals,” and the frolicking pairs of lovers from the regal Athenian court, all set loose in a magical forest. It would seem perfect for an evening in Central Park, but director Lear deBessonet has flattened everything out so that, though it all flows nicely on the surface, the play’s disturbing undercurrents are left, well, undisturbed.

The production certainly looks handsome. David Rockwell’s judicious set design visualizes Shakespeare’s “wood” with a few twisty trees, which enchantingly play off the park’s surrounding greenery. Clint Ramos’s spectacularly colorful costumes are loud in the best possible sense, and Tyler Micoleau’s adroit lighting rounds out a delightful visual trifecta. Added to that is Justin Levine’s jaunty New Orleans-jazz influenced music, with songs belted out smashingly by Marcelle Davies-Lashley, even if she’s been shoe-horned into the proceedings as the “fairy singer.”

DeBessonet capably choreographs the characters’ movement, from the nerdily comic mechanicals rehearsing their play to the royals from both Athens (Theseus and Hippolyta) and the forest (Oberon and Titania). But the director must shoulder the blame for the ridiculous idea to cast elderly performers as the fairies—Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, etc.—nonsensical even considering that Puck, who does Oberon’s bidding, is played by the ultimate stage ham Kristine Nielsen, the least puckish Robin Goodfellow since Kathryn Walker in Julie Taymor’s 2014 mess at Theater for a New Audience.

Then there are the lovers, who are a well-oiled machine of athleticism and hilarity, led by Annaleigh Ashford’s Helena, a true spitfire. She might be too broad in her interpretation of the most desperate of the quartet—which includes Shalita Grant’s Hermia, Kyle Beltran’s Lysander, and Alex Hernandez’s Demetrius, each physically agile if histrionically undernourished—but the actress has a unique way of speaking her lines that seems to work for anything, from Sondheim to A.R. Gurney to Shakespeare, and her peerless physical skills allow her to get more out of a single gesture than others do by mercilessly camping it up.

The only other cast member on Ashford’s level is Danny Burstein as Nick Bottom, a part filled with immortal comic scenes. But Burstein, unlike most park performers, doesn’t completely force-feed a diet of extraneous bits to an audience all too willing to swallow them. Instead, he’s funny and poignant and realistic and fantastical simultaneously, which is what deBessonet’s Dream, despite some splendid moments, ultimately isn’t.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

August '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Going in Style
(Warner Bros)
This remake of the 1979 oldster heist movie with George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg is an innocuous but entertaining vehicle for Michael Caine, Alan Arkin and Morgan Freeman, who play octogenarians planning to rob a bank. Director Zach Braff consistently takes the obvious route to every lame old age joke or schmaltzy twist, but his cast—which includes a still gorgeous Ann-Margret as Arkin’s love interest and an hilarious John Ortiz as a crook who gives our trio some robbery tips—is ingratiating enough to make this a smooth 95-minute ride. The hi-def transfer sparkles; extras are Braff’s commentary and deleted scenes.

Crashing—Complete 1st Season
(HBO)
Too bad Pete Holmes is so dull and unfunny: not that this lackluster Judd Apatow would have succeeded anyway, but a better lead might have given the series a chance to be amusing, pointed and even poignant. Whenever someone with superior comic smarts appears—like Artie Lange or Sarah Silverman—Crashing sporadically turns into something humorous, but that’s not often enough. The series looks fine on Blu; extras are featurettes and Holmes’ HBO stand-up special.

The Sea Chase 
Blood Alley
(Warner Archive)
Two lesser John Wayne films showcase his passable acting in two wartime roles. In John Farrow’s barely adequate water-logged actioner, 1955’s Sea Chase, the Duke is a German U-boat pilot who loathes his Fuhrer and falls for Lana Turner. In William Wellman’s nearly embarrassing Blood Alley (1948), Wayne is a merchant marine who ferries Chinese refugees with China’s navy hot on his tail, as white performers (unsurprisingly but eye-rollingly) play several Asian characters. Both films—shot in Cinemascope—look terrific on Blu-ray; Alley extras are newsreels and featurettes.

Where the Boys Are
(Warner Archive)
This mildly cautionary 1960 tale follows horny college kids to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break, where it’s suggested that they’re having sex, losing their virginity and even (in one shocking instance of honesty) being raped. The attractive and charming cast is led by the gals, especially Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Francis. The Cinemascope compositions look superb in hi-def; extras include Prentiss’s audio commentary and two featurettes.

DVDs of the Week 
Amnesia
Inseparables
(Film Movement)
Barbet Schroeder’s latest, Amnesia—a slow-boiling drama about an German woman whose isolated existence is disturbed by a young man whose appearance leads to terrible revelations—is anchored by Marthe Keller’s lovely, understated performance in the lead. Based on the 2011 treacly smash-hit French comedy The Intouchables, the Argentine version, Inseparables, is even more sentimental and crude in its story of a wealthy paraplegic and the working-class assistant who brings excitement into his life. The lone Amnesia extra is Your Mother and I, a fine short by British-Canadian director Anna Maguire.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

July '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Barber of Seville 
(Opus Arte)
In the 2016 Glyndebourne Festival production of Rossini’s great comic opera, beguiling American soprano Danielle De Niese unsurprisingly steals the show as Rosina, the feisty love interest of Count Almaviva, who enlists the help of the barber Figaro to woo and win her. Enrique Mazzola nimbly conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which keeps the comedy and romance brisk. Hi-def audio and video are top-notch; extras are Mazzola and De Niese’s commentary and making-of featurette.

Lohengrin 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
In this 2016 Dresden staging of Richard Wagner’s opera, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko—whose early career comprised lighter-voiced roles by Mozart, Puccini and Prokofiev—shows herself as a Wagnerian singer par excellence: every scene she’s in, her Elsa rivets attention from an already formidable cast. Angela Brandt’s production shrewdly mixes traditional and contemporary (as in the climactic appearance of the swan), and the music is performed with vigor and strength by the orchestra and chorus under Christian Thielemann’s baton. Hi-def audio and video are exemplary.

Parsifal 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Parsifal 
(Challenge Classics)
Richard Wagner’s final opera—a long, slow, quasi-religious processional composed for his own theater at Bayreuth in Germany—is presented today by opera houses around the world. Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s 2016 Bayreuth production flouts the composer’s own stage directions, dragging in pointless directorial “improvements” that obscure an accomplished cast including Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal and Elena Pankratova’s temptress Kundry. Pierre Audi’s 2012 Netherlands Opera staging features similar questionable visuals, but again the cast—led by Petra Lang’s powerhouse presence as Kundry—overcomes those obstacles with reverent singing. Forceful orchestral playing comes from conductors Hartmut Haenchen (Bayreuth) and Iván Fischer (Netherlands); there’s impressive hi-def video and audio on both discs.

Stormy Monday 
(Arrow Academy)
Mike Figgis’ 1988 feature debut is a fairly standard and unexciting neo-noir thriller drenched in the director’s own jazz score. Unfortunately, his solid cast can do little amid the worn-down Newcastle locations, the setting for 90 minutes of small-time hood shenanigans. Sean Bean, Tommy Lee Jones and Sting snarl aggressively, while poor Melanie Griffith is simply out of her element. Roger Deakins’ photography looks particularly noteworthy in hi-def; extras are a Figgis commentary and video appreciation by critic Neil Young.

The Story of China with Michael Wood 
(PBS)
Historian Michael Wood—veteran of such classic British TV series as Art of the Western World and In Search of Shakespeare—embarks on a journey through the epic and convoluted history of China, packing much fascinating information and insight into six hours’ worth of the country’s sights, sounds, people and culture. Wood’s expertise, intelligence and compassion are on vivid display throughout this don’t-miss series, which could use more contextualizing in the extras: despite the magnificent hi-def images, there are only a handful of very short featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
The Country Doctor 
(Icarus)
In writer/director Thomas Lilti’s intimate character study, Francois Cluzet plays the veteran doctor who knows everyone in his little corner of the French countryside, but who initially overreacts when a newcomer arrives from the city, ostensibly to help him out with his workload. Cluzet and Marianne Denicourt (as adversary, rival and ally) connect emotionally, providing an authentically “real” relationship that never turns treacly—even when it easily could have. Lilti’s movie brims with small but not unimportant moments that display its characters in all their humanity.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the DVD I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.
Pretty Little Liars—Complete 7th Season 
(Warner Bros)
The final season of the popular series about the quintet of “liars”—Aria, Emily, Hanna, Spencer and Mona—comprises a breakneck progression of 20 episodes culminating with one of the most bizarre TV twists since “Who Shot J.R.”: a twin of one of the gals appears as the infamous D.A., improbably controlling what’s going on. Yet despite such silliness, the wrap-up is dramatically satisfying. Bonus features comprise several featurettes, wrap party “episode” and deleted scenes.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Film review—“The Midwife” with Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot

The Midwife
Written and directed by Martin Provost
Opened July 21, 2017
musicboxfilms.com

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot in The Midwife (Music Box Films)
There can be no more quintessentially French film than Martin Provost’s The Midwife (the double meaning of the French title, Sage femme, is lost in English), and not simply because it stars Catherine Deneuve. It’s also because of its plot: a 49-year-old midwife receives a phone call one day from her father’s long-gone mistress, now in her 70s and looking for closure after receiving a fatal brain cancer diagnosis.

When she agrees to meet Béatrice Sobolevski, Claire’s own life is in flux: the clinic where she’s worked for decades helping to deliver newborns is about to be replaced by the latest high-tech one, where her hard-earned experience and expertise is beside the point; her son Simon, currently in college working his way toward a medical degree, brings home his pregnant girlfriend; and her neighbor Paul, as hard a worker on his vegetable garden as she is on hers, wants a closer relationship than she’s been willing to allow herself with any man.

Into Claire’s messy life storms the still glamorous and self-absorbed Béatrice, who becomes amusingly dependent on Claire after being told that Claire’s father killed himself decades ago after Béatrice left him. As written and directed by Martin Provost, The Midwife skirts melodrama and soap opera in its depiction of this odd couple, especially when the funny but repetitive back-and-forth between these completely antithetical women is overwhelmed at times by several scarily authentic birthing sequences.

Despite that, the film is quite affecting thanks to its two leads. Deneuve, of course, is even more elegant than the fake Hungarian princess she plays, but she is also believably heart-tugging as a grievously sick woman trying to keep up appearances even though the high life she used to lead is long gone. And Frot—whose pathetically hilarious opera singer with no talent in last year’s Marguerite was far more memorable than Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated turn in Florence Foster Jenkins—gives a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a middle-aged woman at a crossroads in her life who must also confront the ghost of her family’s sorrowful past in the form of Béatrice.

Provost’s droll touches—notably the moment when Béatrice discovers that Claire’s son Simon bears an uncanny resemblance to Claire’s father (and Béatrice’s lover)—complement the delectable performances of both Catherines, who make The Midwife far more substantial than it would otherwise be.