Director: Martin Provost
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Catherine Frot, Olivier Gourmet
Watch The Midwife online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Written and directed by French filmmaker Martin Provost (Seraphine, Violette), this engaging drama stars 10-time Cesar nominee Catherine Frot as hospital midwife Claire Breton, whose life is suddenly upturned by the arrival of Beatrice (Deneuve), her father’s former mistress, who she hasn’t seen for over 40 years. Beatrice’s appetite for life has not diminished in the intervening years – she still smokes like a chimney and consumes red wine and steak like they’re going out of fashion – and Claire is both baffled and frustrated by her unexpected reappearance, until Beatrice reveals that she’s dying of cancer and Claire realises that she has no one else in her life.
Couched purely in terms of its plot, this is eminently predictable, overly familiar stuff, essentially a story about Frot’s buttoned-down character learning to loosen up and re-engage with the possibilities of life (here represented by a relationship with Olivier Gourmet’s smitten fellow allotment-tender), through her reluctant friendship with Deneuve’s still-got-it force of nature. Their relationship is complicated still further by the fact that Beatrice is seemingly oblivious to the hurt she caused when she abandoned Claire’s father, all those years ago, something Claire isn’t yet ready to forgive.
However, Deneuve’s gloriously brassy performance elevates the material into something much more compelling, in part because we can’t quite believe what we’re seeing, since she’s cast so strikingly against type (she’s usually altogether haughtier and in control at all times). In particular, Deneuve is alive to the different layers to Beatrice, revealing a touching vulnerability beneath her blousy bravado. Frot has a less showier role, but she takes care to invest Claire with similar hidden depths, whether it’s clamping down her anger at Beatrice’s initial reappearance, or gradually allowing herself to succumb to Gourmet’s devoted attentions.
Provost’s script finds both humour and heartbreak in the central relationship and Deneuve’s dialogue is often extremely amusing. In addition, Provost crafts two terrific, stand-out scenes (one for each of his actresses): the first when Claire realises that the woman she’s just helped give birth was herself a baby Claire delivered 28 years previously; and the second – a beautifully staged sequence involving some projected slides – when Beatrice encounters Claire’s handsome, grown-up son (Quentin Dolmaire) and is flustered by his resemblance to her former lover.
Admittedly, there’s not a moment or an emotional beat in The Midwife that you won’t see coming, but this is a splendid showcase for two of les grandes dames of French cinema and it’s worth seeing on that basis alone.