‘The Midwife’: 2 French greats elevate a familiar story
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“The Midwife” is one of those movies that could be about anything and you’d watch, so enjoyable are its lead actors.
Not that their characters are enjoyable, exactly — one mopes through her life while the other blazes a trail to the end of hers. But to spend two hours in the company of Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve as they sort out various messes in Martin Provost’s film is a delight.
Claire (Frot, from “Marguerite”) is a midwife, delivering babies in a clinic that’s about to go under. She doesn’t drink, doesn’t eat meat, doesn’t have any real relationships outside of her son and appears to avoid pleasure with a studied discipline.
This could make for a dull character. In Frot’s hands, it does not. Her beautifully expressive face speaks volumes (watch for a quick glance down when she find she herself on the edge of a literal cliff, then an effort at recovering her composure). A hint of a smile is like a sliver of sunlight through the clouds. Frot is terrific.
So, too, is Deneuve. She plays Béatrice, who smokes, drinks, eats the biggest steaks she can find and gambles in smoke-clogged back rooms, simply adopting hedonism as an it-works-for-me lifestyle.
She’s also got brain cancer.
This is the impetus for her getting in touch with Claire. Decades ago, Béatrice was Claire’s father’s mistress. Claire hasn’t spoken to her in the 30 years since Beatrice walked out on her father and she has little interest in doing so now.
Yet the compassion and care we’ve seen at the hospital while Claire is delivering babies — and seen only there, save with her son — won’t allow her to simply ignore a dying woman who once was an important part of her life.
Also, Beatrice isn’t the sort of person who takes no for an answer.
They start spending some time together, with Claire chiding Béatrice for smoking and drinking even while she’s sick, and Béatrice telling a reluctant Claire of her plans for her estate. Meanwhile, Claire’s romantic life begins to thaw a bit, as she begins spending time with Paul (Olivier Gourmet), a truck driver with whom she shares space in a community garden.
It’s a fairly familiar set-up, but Provost doesn’t take the clichéd route. At least not completely. Yes, Claire and Béatrice each lack something in their lives, and they fill in each others’ blank emotional spaces. Sort of. Claire won’t let her guard down too easily, and no diagnosis in the world is going to prevent Béatrice from having wine with breakfast, lunch and dinner. (In-between? That’s what liquor is for.)
But the story isn’t the draw here. The performances are what’s so inviting about “The Midwife.” Once you’ve accepted that invitation, you’ll want to stick around.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
Music Box Films presents a film written and directed by Martin Provost. No MPAA rating. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 117 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre and the Wilmette Theatre.