The Midwife (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A midwife and her father’s mistress

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While it is basically a conventional drama, French film “The Midwife” is an enjoyable experience for several good reasons. Yes, its story is predictable at times, but its two contrasting main characters are vivid and engaging enough to hold our attention, and the movie is simply delightful as intimately observing what is happening between them. In addition, these two characters are incidentally played by two of the best actresses in France, and, in my inconsequential opinion, that makes the film worthwhile to watch at least.

In the beginning, we are introduced to Claire (Catherine Frot), a middle-aged midwife who has worked at a maternity clinic for many years. Although the circumstance has been not very bright for her and her several colleagues as the clinic will soon be shut down, they keep diligently working as usual, and the opening scene of the movie shows Claire handling another case of delivery with compassionate professionalism.

Outside her workplace, Claire has led a plain, uneventful private life alone since her son moved out from her residence, but then it is disrupted by an unexpected phone call from a figure in her old past. The figure in question is an old woman named Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve), and she was the mistress of Claire’s dead father, who killed himself not long after Béatrice suddenly left him and young Claire.

Of course, Claire is not so eager to meet Béatrice, but she agrees to meet her anyway, and Béatrice reveals that she may not live long due to brain cancer. As your average free spirit, she casually talks about her illness, but it made her look back on her wild, messy life, and now she wants to have sort of reconciliation with the daughter of a man whom, as she admits to Claire at one point, she loved more than any other guys in her life.

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Although she still does not like Béatrice much, Claire gradually lets Béatrice coming into her life. When Béatrice later happens to lose her current residence, Claire allows Béatrice to stay at her apartment, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Béatrice brings some lively spirit into Claire’s apartment when she feels relatively better. She is surely well aware of that there may not be many days left for her, but that still does not stop her from reaching for joie de vivre as before, and Claire comes to enjoy being with Béatrice more than before.

While its plot feels clichéd on the surface, the screenplay by director Martin Provost, who previously impressed me a lot with “Séraphine” (2008), takes time in establishing its main characters with details and nuances, and there are a number of nice human moments which let us get to know more about Claire and Béatrice. As we observe more of Claire’s work at the clinic, we sense how much she is dedicated to her profession, and we later get a sweet, poignant moment when she encounters someone who really appreciates her work for a personal reason. Although she is often capricious and self-absorbed, Béatrice comes to us as a complex human character nonetheless, and, as observing how she firmly keeps her spirit high despite her increasingly precarious life, we come to care about her as much as Claire does.

In contrast, the other parts of the movie do not work as well as intended. For example, a subplot involved with Claire’s son does not go anywhere once he tells Claire about an important decision for his life and career, and the same thing can be said about Claire’s attempt to get a new job later in the film. In case of her romantic involvement with the son of one of her neighbours, it feels rather redundant from time to time, and Olivier Gourmet, a Belgian actor who has usually been reliable since I saw him in the Dardenne Brothers’ great film “The Son” (2002), is under-utilized in his thankless role.

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Nevertheless, the movie remains to be entertaining thanks to its two main performers. While she drew my attention for the first time through her hilarious performance in “Marguerite” (2015), Catherine Frot is actually a veteran movie actress who has worked for more than 35 years since she appeared in Alain Resnais’ “My American Uncle” (1980), and the movie shows me again that she is indeed an interesting performer to watch. Steadily maintaining her no-nonsense character’s staid façade, Frot did a good job of conveying different emotions inside her character, and her low-key performance effectively functions as a solid ground for her co-star’s relatively showier acting.

On the opposite, Catherine Deneuve instantly exudes her indelible star quality right from the beginning. While her peak period represented by many notable films such as “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964), “Repulsion” (1965), and “Belle de Jour” (1967) has already passed, Deneuve can still grab our attention as shown from her recent films such as “A Christmas Tale” (2008) and “The Brand New Testament” (2015), and she gives another fine performance here in this film as effortlessly complementing Frot on the screen.

In conclusion, “The Midwife” is not entirely successful, but it is still an intimate female drama to be appreciated for its earnest storytelling as well as its two commendable lead performances, and I was mostly satisfied with its overall result even while recognizing its weak aspects during my viewing. Its achievement may be modest, but I still had a good time mainly thanks to Frot and Deneuve, and you will probably enjoy the movie as much as me if you are familiar with either of them.

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