Film

Film Review: The Midwife – pedestrian drama saved by French cinema legend

Catherine Deneuve’s mesmerising turn rescues a soapy drama from writer-director Martin Provost.

The Midwife is a glossy, sentimental drama from French writer-director Martin Provost. It’s elegantly poised, sometimes moving and a little pedestrian. But this otherwise unremarkable film is graced with greatness in the form of a full-blooded central turn by Catherine Deneuve.

As Béatrice, a penniless retiree living beyond her means in a borrowed flat in Paris, she is magnificent: it’s a performance of grand stately gestures and barrelling emotional power, and it provides good evidence for why Deneuve, at 73, is still French cinema’s leading star.

All credit to her co-star Catherine Frot for managing not to be overshadowed by Deneuve. Frot, in fact, plays the title character, a 49-year-old midwife called Claire in charge of a maternity clinic in a small town just outside of Paris. She’s a reserved, aloof figure, whose well-ordered existence is given a shock when, after years of silence, Béatrice phones her out of the blue.

Claire arranges to meet Béatrice in Paris, and there’s an absorbing intrigue to these early scenes. Béatrice is warm and familiar with Claire but the younger woman is stand-offish, frosty to the point of hostility. Provost is in no rush to explain the reason for this strained atmosphere, preferring instead to stand back in admiration as his two actresses circle one another.

When the revelation comes, it does so in increments. Béatrice was the mistress of Claire’s father, a famous swimmer in the 1970s. Béatrice left him, and though she claims that he remained her greatest love, she never got back in contact. What she doesn’t know – and what Claire tells her in a furious hiss – is that this man committed suicide not long afterwards, devastated by Béatrice’s departure. And as if that’s not enough to take in, Béatrice has a disclosure: she has terminal cancer.

Claire nurses decades of resentment towards Béatrice but the older woman, applying those reserves of assertiveness, charm and neediness that saw her claim so many ardent male admirers in years past, wins her over. Reluctant at first but moved by pity and a sense of clinical duty, Claire begins to care for Béatrice, eventually making room in her flat for her after a big operation.

The film is essentially a study in opposites. Béatrice is an impetuous sensualist, who eats what she wants, boozes heartily and refuses to take her medicine because she doesn’t like the taste: “I believe in the power of pleasure,” she explains defiantly. Claire, on the other hand, approaches the idea of a good time with a frown of suspicion. She avoids red meat and prefers tap water to a glass of good Bordeaux with her meals.

Béatrice is an impetuous sensualist, who eats what she wants, boozes heartily and refuses to take her medicine because she doesn’t like the taste.

The two women slowly change one another: Claire experiences a late blossoming under the unruly influence of the ailing Béatrice; Béatrice meanwhile begins to reconcile herself with the regrets of her past. But while The Midwife is predictable, soapy stuff, it’s mostly enjoyable, with plenty of nicely drawn digressions – Olivier Gourmet is particularly good support as a kindly truck driver whom Claire falls for.

Above all there’s a performance to cherish from Deneuve: a star turn that exudes outsized glamour when the situation requires but is also searingly honest and achingly poignant in the film’s quieter, more moving moments. The film is lucky to have her.

The Midwife is in cinemas from July 7

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