What seemed like a novel idea, pairing two of French cinema’s contemporary icons from opposing schools of expression (the dramatically inclined Catherine Deneuve and comic queen Catherine Frot) under the direction of Martin Provost (responsible for the femme-centric period biopics Seraphine and Violette), turns out to be a rather stale endeavor with The Midwife. Premiering in competition at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival, Provost’s film made healthy international sales, and made a demure entry in the US market courtesy of Music Box Films mid-simmer 2017, where it only soaked up a little over six-hundred-thousand at the box office. Despite some raves for its leading ladies (either of whom might end up snagging a Cesar nod come the year’s end thanks to their solid work here), Provost whips up a familiar odd-couple formula by throwing together two diametrically opposed personalities and letting them sink into a bloated soup of incongruous melodrama.
Claire is a serious but loving single mother finding herself all of a sudden at an unexpected precipice. With her adult son ready to leave home (and quite possibly medical school) to begin a family of his own, and the clinic she works at as a midwife about to be shut down after years for lack of profitability, Claire hasn’t rightly gauged the effects these changes may have on her. Before she can fathom the ramifications of either scenario, a phone call from Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve), her father’s mistress of some thirty odd years ago, suddenly commands her attention. Why Beatrice left as well as why she has returned has passing interest for Claire, if mainly to point out to the older woman her father died tragically soon after he was abandoned, and the effects were considerable upon Claire. Wishing to make amends for her own personal reasons, Beatrice ingratiates herself upon the no-nonsense midwife, while a flirtatious stranger (Olivier Gourmet) is also suddenly vying for Claire’s attention.
Frot, who is fresh off a Cesar win for Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite (2015) is a multifaceted performer best known for her comedically inclined filmography. Her appearance as Claire the midwife, a job role currently undergoing a revamp in the bureaucratic medical profession (set to be renamed ‘birth technician’), is shown to be a passe, traditional role and one of many elements keeping Claire stuck in a care-taking capacity which hasn’t allowed her room to grow as a well-rounded woman. Bitter and restrained, she’s sought to give the love and support to those around her which she herself was denied in her own family life.
All of this significant psychological baggage primes us for a stellar character study, but Provost consistently tells rather than shows and settles for a series of interactions between a flinty Frot and a bemused Deneuve. As the otherwise comedic support, Deneuve is frothy and sometimes fun, though clearly doesn’t ever appear to be in the sort of physical distress a tumor in the brain requiring invasive surgery would indicate. Likewise, for a film so firmly planted in the medical realm, several childbirth sequences seem sloppily staged, babies either soaked in postnatal goop or ejected from the womb instantly air-dried.
Sequences with Frot and Deneuve are arguably salvageable, but The Midwife loses steam with supporting characters, and allows for an unnecessarily extended running time of nearly two hours. Olivier Gourmet is sweet as Claire’s constant gardener next door (the only place she seems excited to visit outside of work) and they share some cutesy vegetation related dialogue, but this gets tiring quickly. Worse, as her son, Quentin Dolmaire (of Desplechin’s My Golden Days, 2015) appears as the doppelganger for Frot’s dead father, which is rather clumsily relayed for corny effect. A last minute cameo from Pauline Etienne as the last woman to show up to give birth in the clinic, where she herself had been born thanks to a supreme intervention from Frot twenty odd years before, is also mawkishly sentimental.
Waxing enthusiastically over all of this happens to be an otherwise lovely score from Gregoire Hetzel, a repeated refrain begging to be the shiny varnish over something more meaningful than what’s accomplished here.
Music Box released The Midwife on DVD only in 1.85:1 with 5.1 Dolby Digital, in a format which doesn’t necessarily further the film’s cause. Standard in every possible way in this transfer, even the extra features skew towards the woefully basic end, including footage from the film’s Berlinale Press Conference with Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot, as well as an interview with Martin Provost.
Martin Provost Interview:
The director is present for this twenty-minute interview with Unifrance, which took place shortly after the film’s release. Addressing his inspirations for the film, the discussion turns on the many issues which are explored through the prism of the titular profession.
Fans of the considerable talents of either leading lady should find something to appreciate here, but The Midwife skews towards Deneuve.
Film Review: ★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆