The Midwife (2017)
One of the many ways that European and Hollywood films differ is that the former are willing to dwell on the ordinary while the latter usually prefers to make stories bigger than they merit. The French film The Midwife (2017) is an example of storytelling that works simply by putting two very different women together and watching how they resolve the webs of emotion that have become tangled over time.
As she approaches her 50th birthday, devoted midwife and single mother Claire (Catherine Frot) faces professional upheaval when her clinic must close. Her orderly conservative life is fractured further when the woman she blames for her father’s suicide suddenly makes contact after 30 years. Opposites in every way, Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve) is manipulative, irresponsible, and a chronic gambler who loves fine wine and rich food. Claire’s suspicion that Beatrice wants something is proven correct when the latter confides that she is dying, homeless and without support. Initial rejection turns into understanding for the midwife whose instincts are to nurture life, as she juggles the needs of Beatrice, the clinic’s closure, and her neighbour’s romantic advances. When her son announces he is quitting medical school and his girlfriend is pregnant, the always competent Claire confronts being helpless in a sea of change.
These narrative strands and their complications are not what sustains the story. Rather it is the way these two icons of French cinema fill out their roles and the emotional connections they make. The flamboyant Beatrice is dramatic and unfiltered, while the restrained Claire is measured and well aware of the other’s character flaws. One is a taker, the other a giver, yet both are engaging in different ways. As Beatrice confronts her fate, Claire continues bringing new life into the world in several very moving childbirth scenes that anchor the earthy realism and ordinariness of the story. The filming style dwells on warm and intimate moments, capturing both the charms and emotional swirls of French village life. Great acting and filming complements a script that finds uncontrived humour in everyday places.
Richly nuanced performances in the European cinematic tradition are at the heart of The Midwife. This is not a film that offers rising tensions towards a big resolution. Instead you are likely to leave the cinema with a bitter-sweet afterglow that comes from sharing moments of unbridled joy, sadness, and the ambivalent ordinariness of our existence.
Director: Martin Provost
Stars: Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Oliver Gourmet