Catherine Deneuve has played a wide variety of roles over the course of a career now spanning seven decades. But despite her exemplary range, many American viewers maintain an image of her as an aloof, exquisite, possibly imperious, possibly enigmatic beauty. This is largely because she looks like, well, Catherine Deneuve. The woman can’t help it. Even when portraying the needy, nearly shambolic Béatrice in “The Midwife,” Ms. Deneuve is capable of vibrating with an elegance that implies both hauteur and froideur.
Béatrice is not the title character of this film, written and directed by Martin Provost. That is Claire, played by Catherine Frot, a superb and prolific actress whose work in French cinema is not nearly as well known here as Ms. Deneuve’s is. Claire is fantastic at her job: calm, expert, compassionate. She cares deeply about her work, which, as the movie opens, takes place at a birthing clinic that will soon be closing. She cares so deeply, for instance, that she keeps trying to resuscitate a stillborn baby, long after everyone else has faced reality, in one of the movie’s many realistic medical scenes. (This one, in particular, was sufficiently convincing to arouse my terrified curiosity as to how it was achieved. The other childbirth scenes, and there are a fair number, also look authentic.)
Claire’s job appears to be the main focus of a tidy, organized, somewhat lonely life. A single mother, she has a son with whom she shares a tight bond, but he’s approaching adulthood and getting ready to strike out on his own. On weekends, and after biking home from the clinic, she tends a garden in a shared plot of land. Her neighbor there, a friendly, salt-of-the-earth truck driver named Paul — played with simple amiability by Olivier Gourmet, the wonderful actor and good-luck charm for the Belgian filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne — takes an immediate strong liking to Claire. But she’s not terribly interested in making any human connections beyond those she has with the mothers she helps, and the babies she delivers.
But then a voice from the past sends a tremor into her placid life. That would be Ms. Deneuve’s Béatrice, a former mistress of Claire’s father (now dead), whose abandonment of both her lover and his daughter engendered heartbreak and worse 30 or so years earlier.
Still trying to keep up appearances, despite being in a bad place, Béatrice reaches out to Claire for the standard-issue movie melodrama reason: She’s gravely ill (with a brain tumor) and is afraid of dying alone. Yet she won’t alter her behavior, which includes a lot of smoking and drinking, some hard-core gambling and extravagant dining. Claire gives Béatrice advice, refuses her proffered gifts and tries brushing her off, but of course she cannot. The tremor becomes something of a genuine seismic event for Claire.
Because it is a French film, or rather the kind of French film that wants to serve its sentimentality with a dollop of prestige, “The Midwife” doesn’t offer an entirely shameless version of the “dying free spirit imbues uptight caretaker with a new lust for life” scenario. It doesn’t spoon-feed the viewer a lot of exposition, leaving parts of the back story a little enigmatic. It drops in peculiar little character touches, including one bizarre bit concerning the resemblance between Claire’s son, Simon, and his dear departed grandfather.
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