In The Midwife (Sage Femme) we get two Catherines for the price of one – Catherine Frot as Claire, the midwife of the title, and Catherine Deneuve as Béatrice, a figure from Claire’s past. For many viewers, seeing these two together will be more than reason enough watch the film.
Claire works in a small hospital where all the midwives get along; her works exhausts her but she enjoys it. Her future is uncertain, because the hospital will soon be closed (hence the “Resist” sign hanging from it). She is the single mother of Simon, who is off at medical school.
We hear Béatrice before we see her, as Claire listens to her voice on her answering machine. We find out later that it’s a voice she has not heard for more than 30 years.
With great reluctance, Claire goes into Paris to meet Béatrice, who is dying of brain cancer and looking to reconnect with people from her past. She needs familiar faces and moral support. Fair enough. Far as we can tell, making amends, and seeking forgiveness are not part of her plan. She seems to be the guilt-free type.
Béatrice was mistress to Claire’s father, but she left him one day without a word of explanation. It’s not clear what she was to Claire – something between a big sister, aunt or mother figure? (Some of the critics who don’t like this film are annoyed that such things are not spelled out.) What is clear that Claire has never forgiven Béatrice – not for the affair itself, but for her departure.
We have no idea how Béatrice has been supporting herself all these years either, though a scene in a gambling den offers a partial answer. I read somewhere that those were real gamblers, not actors.
The two women have many disagreements and misunderstandings before they come to a sort of truce. (Minor spoiler, sorry, but you could figure that out from the trailer.) Though these women are straight, that’s the same pattern many romantic comedies follow, isn’t it?
Speaking of romance, Claire has a one-step-forward, two-steps-backwards one with long- distance truck driver Paul (played by Olivier Gourmet, who has worked so often with the Dardennes brothers.) Here his character is quite amiable, not glum, silent, tortured or creepy as he has often been in other roles. Paul and Claire share adjoining garden allotments. (Gardening, earthiness, sex – is it too obvious? I’m willing to let it go.)
Béatrice does not have a visible love interest, but even though she is seriously ill, she still has an appetite for alcohol (whisky and wine) and lots of red meat. Cigarettes, too! However unlikely that might be in real life, it’s a signal that she’s not yet ready to just lay down and die and that she’s still chasing pleasure, wisely or not.
Colours and clothes were among the pleasures of The Midwife for me. Though Béatrice dislikes Claire’s frumpy beige raincoat, Claire does wear a pretty blue scarf, which matches the blue couch in her otherwise boring apartment. Béatrice has an absolutely gorgeous coat in a rich, jewel-like purple. No matter how distraught she might be, she always looks good! (I also read that her film wardrobe is by Yves St. Laurent.) In a nod to Deneuve’s past ads for Chanel No. 5, you might notice a big bottle on her bathroom shelf, if you look carefully. (Nothing bad happens to it, but keeping glass bottles in rooms with hard floors seems very unwise. Don’t ask me how I know.)
The Midwife is unusual in that Catherine Frot was not just acting in scenes set in Claire’s workplace. Frot received several days of training in a French maternity ward and delivered six babies in the course of filming. Those scenes were shot in Belgium, because babies younger than three months old cannot be filmed in France. (In the U.S., babies who “act” must be at least 15 days old.)
Writer-director Martin Provost (Séraphine, Violette) said he wrote the film with Frot and Gourmet in mind, and he was very happy that they agreed to appear in the film. In this interview, on a British site called The Upcoming, Provost talks about that and the birth scenes.
The Midwife (Sage Femme)
Written and directed by Martin Provost.
With: Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourme, Mylène Demongeot, Quentin Dolmaire
In Montreal, The Midwife (Sage Femme) is playing in the original French-language version at Cinema Beaubien and Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin, and with English subtitles at Cineplex Odeon Forum.