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‘The Midwife’ Review: Catherine Deneuve Gives Her Best Role in Years in Minor-Key Crowdpleaser — Berlinale 2017

The French actress delivers in Martin Provost’s satisfying Parisian tale.

midwife deneuve

“The Midwife”

As Goldie Hawn once put it, Hollywood has only three roles for women: Ingénue, District Attorney and “Driving Miss Daisy”. The fact of the matter is, too many strong talents see the pool of good parts unfairly dry up once they reach middle age, and short of radically reshaping the American film industry (I’m for that, too!), might I suggest this temporary stop-gap – might they consider learning French?

While it doesn’t reach the heady highs of last year’s festival hit “Things To Come,” Martin Provost’s “The Midwife” once again proves that French filmmakers know how to treat actresses of a certain age. Offering plum roles to Catherines Frot and Catherine Deneuve, “The Midwife” is a minor-key crowd pleaser about friendship, forgiveness and rolling with the punches.

Single mother Claire (Catherine Frot) lives a lonely, vampiric existence in the suburbs of Paris.  She sleeps days and works nights, ushering in a new life as the chief midwife at a local maternity clinic. But her life is on the cusp of big change. Her university student son (“My Golden Days” star Quentin Dolmaire) has for all intents and purposes moved out, and she’s about to lose her job, her clinic unable to compete with the nearby mega-hospital hoovering up all the expectant mothers.  If less well-known internationally, Frot is a beloved comic actress in her native Gaul (she won the César last year for the box office hit “Marguerite,” the French take on the Florence Foster Jenkins tale) and this more somber role allows her to ably flex some dramatic muscles.

On the other hand, the real revelation here needs no introduction. Deneuve is Béatrice, a lifelong kept-woman and good time gal who realizes, after a terminal cancer diagnosis, that she doesn’t have a lot to show after years of hard living. So she sets out to connect with her closest familial connection – the daughter of a boyfriend from 30 years before, Claire. As the reigning grande dame of French cinema, Deneuve could easily rest on her laurels, only taking roles that befit and reinforce her stature. Which makes her vulnerable turn here all the more special. Playing a heart-on-her-sleeve, still-crazy-after-all-these-years free spirit, Deneuve delivers her best performance in recent memory.

To be fair, the actresses outshine the film. Provost paints a conventional how-middle-age-woman-got-her-groove-back picture, and does so with broad strokes. The plot holds few surprises and hits those preordained story beats with well-timed efficiency. You know the hard-charging Béatrice is going to loosen up the tightly-wound Claire, who doesn’t drink or eat meat or do anything fun, at least, not until halfway through the second act. Provost lets you know the exact moment the fuddy-duddy Claire decides to let down her hair by having the actress walk into the bathroom… and let down her hair.

What the film lacks in narrative and visual subtlety it more than makes up for in rich human interaction. Claire has good reason to be wary of her father’s former mistress – when she left him, he was so despondent he took his own life. And so in their early interactions, the two actresses circle each other with guarded unease, Claire unsure why this figure from her past has returned, while Béatrice unsure how Claire will react now that she has.

The two actresses make terrific foils and even better scene partners, and their many scenes together – as Claire warms to her former pseudo-stepmom, eventually inviting her to live in her apartment – simmer with notes of resentment, forgiveness, anger, tenderness, joy and most startlingly, hints of sexuality.

In one perfectly executed moment late in the film, the women set up a slideshow of photos of Claire’s father – the man who connected them – when her son walks in the room. Looking at the photo of her former beau and then to his young grandson, Béatrice marvels at their resemblance, so she walks right up to the kid and kisses him on the lips.  The film doesn’t lean for laughs or pathos, but allows the moment to sit, funny and sad and moving all at the same time. Just like life, really.

Grade: B

“The Midwife” premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution. 

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