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

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.

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