The Midwife

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Two well known films by writer-director Martin Provost, Seraphine and Violette, are about creative women who suffered for their art. The French filmmaker gives us another version of this woman in his latest film, The Midwife, about a woman committed to practising her profession according to certain principles, against trend.

It is also known by its French title, Sage Femme, referencing the rare skill that women in labour have depended on since  antiquity. In passing, it takes aim at how the new techno-language has transformed the secret women’s business of midwifery into the ‘birth technician’.

Claire (Catherine Frot) is a highly experienced, committed and competent midwife managing the precarious birthing business on a daily basis. Professionally, she has arrived, and is in no need of validation.

She is a single mother who has made a modest success of her life, however Provost has decided to play the devil’s advocate with her. Maybe there’s a thing or two that Claire could learn from her father’s former mistress, Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve), who is a very naughty girl indeed.

What fun it is to watch the ice queen Deneuve as an unrepentant life-long smoker, a drinker, and a card sharp. She reaches out to the daughter of one of her former lovers – a swimming champion who shot himself when she left him – when she is in need of a friend. It’s the first contact the women have had in 30 years.

They meet at Beatrice’s place, or where she is camped temporarily. Looking as much a fright as it is possible for Deneuve to look, she greets Claire in her dressing gown, lights up her first cigarette of the day, and offers her guest whisky and peanuts. How old are you now, she asks. ‘Forty nine is the answer. ‘Ooh la la, you always did look older than your age!’ We get the picture.

When they go out for a snack together Beatrice orders an omelette, fries and red wine for lunch, and proffers an expensive ring signalling she wants to make amends for the hurt she once caused. She is really trying to buy her support. Beatrice has discovered she has brain cancer.

The scene looks set for an inter-generational battle, between the freewheeling Beatrice and the uptight and serious – one might say, humourless – Claire. Her abstemiousness (no drugs, no alcohol, no television, and no fun), is tinged with a certain unbending, moral superiority. Beatrice believes in the power of pleasure while Claire feels she doesn’t need or have time for intimacy.

An icon of French cinema, Deneuve, has for decades maintained her sang-froid as a unattainable beauty who seems remarkably in control. A part she played in Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way a few years ago was similar in some ways, but she is less in control here and cries a number of times on screen, which is most unusual.

Filmgoers may be feeling a bit emotional themselves. The film starts with some real-life birthing scenes with plenty of close-ups. Instead of the naturalism he maintained in Seraphine, Provost peppers the narrative with actuality images of births, including the administration of an epidural.

Beatrice brings chaos into the younger woman’s orderly, clinical life. Claire allows herself to be plied with vodka and caviar by the amorous truck-driver working the neighbouring allotment, she adjusts well enough to her son dropping out of university, and she even undertakes to get rid of her sensible trenchcoat.

The writing is both sharp and wise, and the key characters  very well-observed as Provost gives us all something to reflect on.

From the birthing clinic, to the gambling den, from the spare apartment where Claire lives, to the allotment where she grows her flowers and veges, this surprisingly engaging drama weaves its way along the highways and the byways to its inevitable conclusion.

Rated PG, 117 Minutes

4 Stars

Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7