French legends Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot go tête à tête in The Midwife. Despite the rather twee sun-dappled publicity images, Martin Provost’s film plays like a less grim and more substantial version of a tale the Dardenne brothers might tell. But unlike the Dardennes’ 2 Days, 1 Night, The Midwife keeps its socio-political workers’ rights plot on the fringes, weaving a more varied plait-like structure from piecemeal glimpses into midwife Claire’s life.
In the first half this looseness lends The Midwife the authenticity of an actual life being lived. Later, though, the rapid acceleration of Claire’s stepmother’s illness seems a too-convenient plot device for ushering the narrative arc to a neater conclusion.
Still, Provost’s story is a bittersweet joy along the way. The juxtaposition of Frot’s practical and self-contained Claire with Deneuve’s melodramatic Beatrice makes for a delightful study in opposites, yet the characterisation never slips into caricature. Deneuve is spectacular; swinging between straight-talking brashness and vulnerable revelation of Beatrice’s repressed sadness, grief and regret.
Disjunctive aural effects decisions attempt to convey aspects of Beatrice’s experience of illness, yet while her character remains an eccentric enigma – fun and frustrating in equal parts – it’s Frot’s Claire who anchors the audience’s journey through the film. Her profession furnishes The Midwife with further realism – the babies look convincingly and messily like actual newborns – as well as breathtaking beauty. Brief snatches from the ward elucidate Claire’s beliefs about midwifery, and her resistance to its corporatisation. One in particular stands out as a stirring celebration of sisterhood and solidarity, and of the circle of life.
Provost marshals many themes and squeezes a lot of plot into the final act without quite sacrificing the naturalism of his free-flowing structure. Yet The Midwife’s seeming simplicity is deceptive; it’ll leave you with a lot to think about.
CAST: Catherine Deneuve, Catherine Frot, Olivier Gourmet, Quentin Dolmaire
DIRECTOR: Martin Provost
WRITERS: Martin Provost
SYNOPSIS: A midwife gets unexpected news from her father’s old mistress.