The French-language title of director Martin Provost’s latest femme-centric drama is Sage femme, a term that technically means midwife, as in the medical profession, but also literally describes a “well-behaved woman.” The double meaning is particularly apt when applied to the film’s heroine, Claire — a single mom in her fifties whose spick-and-span life is thrown amuck by the arrival of Beatrice, a woman who is Claire’s polar opposite in every way, but who could possibly change her for the better.
Claire is played by Catherine Frot and Beatrice by Catherine Deneuve, and The Midwife could also be titled “Catherine vs. Catherine,” so much is it about these two terrific French actors squaring off onscreen, with Frot’s zipped-up and uber-orderly Claire battling Deneuve’s unhinged and disorderly Beatrice. The film works best when the Catherines are allowed to occupy the same frame, a bit less so when it ventures into sappy social realism territory and overindulges in Gregoire Hetzel’s score. It should open strong as an out-of-competition crowd-pleaser in Berlin, with a good turnout for its late-March local release and offshore slots thanks to a stellar cast.
A tale of two Catherines.
Provost is best known for his 2008 Cesar-winning biopic Seraphine, about the brilliant and troubled outsider artist from the turn of the last century. He also directed a portrait of the feminist writer and Simone de Beauvoir contemporary Violette Leduc. Both movies offered prodigious roles for their female leads, and The Midwife is clearly structured as a showcase for its pair of stars. It allows Frot, who was deliciously over-the-top in last year’s Marguerite (the better French version of the Florence Foster Jenkins story), to temper things down impressively, while letting the usually well-tempered Deneuve be a total badass as a character who has partied hearty her whole life and refuses to slow down as she nears the end of it.
Opening with a live birth, which Claire administers in her typically cool fashion, the film quickly gets to the point when she receives a call from Beatrice, who was a lover of Claire’s dad several decades ago and has dropped in to find out how he’s doing. We soon learn — although the script takes some time to delve out key bits of information — that Beatrice ruined Claire’s life when she skipped town and broke her father’s heart, which resulted in his suicide. We also learn that the 70-something Beatrice has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and doesn’t have more than a year to live.
Provost has definitely stacked the melodramatic deck high, and a less-skilled director would have spun a telenovela out of such material. But this is much more of a sharp and nuanced character study than a soap opera, and the story explores how each woman reacts to life’s sudden shifts, with Claire slowly but surely won over by Beatrice’s reckless ways, and Beatrice pretty much being Beatrice until the very end.
Their early encounters in a Parisian cafe are moments to savor, especially the way Beatrice orders the most fatty meal on the menu and guzzles it down with a fine glass of Bordeaux. She’s the kind of woman who makes a scene wherever she shows up — a self-made drama queen whose fairytale life is meant to conceal her modest background, and Deneuve expertly plays her with a mix of rambunctiousness and emotional aplomb, turning the unpredictable Beatrice into the film’s true heroine.
Frot is given more of a standard route to follow, blossoming from a serious, socially hermetic mom into a woman who rediscovers life’s joys at a time when most people are comfortably settling into pre-retirement. Her romance with Paul (Olivier Gourmet), a fun-loving truck driver who tends a neighboring garden, heads pretty much where one would expect and is one of the film’s more obvious plot points. On the other hand, Claire’s connection to her only child, Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), offers up some surprises, including a lovely sequence where they dig up old slides of Claire’s father and the resemblance between the two men is hilariously uncanny.
But it’s really the touchy relationship between Claire and Beatrice that fuels much of The Midwife, and Provost has once again proven to be a sensitive and sure-handed director of what used to be called “women’s films,” with this one somewhat of a cross between Douglas Sirk and the Dardennes. It’s definitely treacly in places and not exactly reinventing the wheel, but the two fine performances at its heart are more than worth it.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production company: Curiosa Films
Cast: Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourmet, Quentin Dolmaire, Mylene Demongeot
Director, screenwriter: Martin Provost
Producer: Olivier Delbosc
Executive producer: Emilien Bignon
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Thierry Francois
Costume designer: Bethasbee Dreyfus
Editor: Albertine Lastera
Composer: Gregoire Hetzel
Casting director: Brigitte Moidon
Sales: Memento Films International