Catherine Deneuve has been making films since 1957 (!), and to watch her on screen is to watch a master at work. Sixty years after her debut, she continues to effortlessly own every scene she inhabits (without ever overshadowing the other talent in the mix), a fact that is as true as ever in The Midwife, the latest from French writer/director Martin Provost (Séraphine, Violette).
She stars as Beatrice, an aging free spirit of a woman who’s lived a life floating from one man, one job, one city to the next, not without connecting to anyone or anything as she goes, but certainly without letting any of it tie her down. She returns to Paris to reconnect with her one true love, a one-time Olympic swimmer, Antoine. When she can’t find him, she reconnects with Claire, his daughter, who was just a teenager when Beatrice, who’d become like a second mother to her, split for greener pastures.
Claire (played by another French film mainstay, Catherine Frot), now in her fifties, is as buttoned-up as Beatrice is bohemian. She’s the midwife of the film’s title, facing a late-career fork in the road as the small private clinic where she works faces closure for lack of profits. But she’s got a grown son pursuing his own medical degree, an apartment all to herself and a plot in a garden that gives her nurturing nature an outlet. Beatrice, arriving in a flurry and with life-altering news of her own, is not in any of Claire’s very tended-to life plans.
Alongside the bigger themes of life and death and family, it’s this odd couple dynamic that the film genially explores as Beatrice begins as an annoyance and morphs into an essential part of Claire’s small circle (that grows by one as she opens herself up to a relationship with a fellow gardener, played by Olivier Gourmet). Beatrice borrows from Peter to pay Paul, scraping together money from pawning her few remaining possessions or spinning tales to old friends. Meanwhile, Claire doesn’t drink a drop and gets nervous driving through Paris’s congested streets.
Soon, though, Beatrice’s health leaves her dependent on Claire, a life of flitting from here to there and back again leaving her without children of her own to rely on. And stuffy Claire, perhaps seeing her own small family evolve with or without her, allows this woman she really did consider a sort of parent back into her life. (Anyone who, as a child had divorced parents who dated will recognize – and appreciate – this type of connection.)
All this is navigated on a backdrop of Claire’s work in the maternity ward. Provost, who crafted the story from the germ of an idea around his own birth and the midwife who saved his life, actually got permission from soon-to-be-parents to film live births, and Frot was trained to be right there in the room. These scenes of new life entering the world, startlingly touching and obviously authentic (these are not small three-month-olds), give the film’s narrative of aging parents and unexpected illness and one’s history catching up to them a surprising but not at all unwelcome weight. Rather than being a drag, it turns what would’ve otherwise been an inconsequential family drama into an exploration of time and relationships with thoughtful lessons to impart.
What’s more, with heavy hitters Deneuve and Frot as the two leads, the film becomes a pleasure to just sit back and watch, as these two women (not girls, not ingenues, not waifs…women) at the top of their craft inhabit complex, vulnerable, evolving characters. When the day comes – a long, long, long time from now – that we look back on Deneuve’s career, The Midwife will stand among some of the best she’s offered in the new millennium.
The Midwife, distributed by Chicago’s own Music Box Films, opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Watch the full trailer below.