The Mid­wife

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Jonathan Richards

This low-key, char­ac­ter-driven drama is be­ing billed as a face-off be­tween two leg­endary French ac­tresses. One, Cather­ine Deneuve, is a le­git­i­mate claimant to that sta­tus on this side of the At­lantic. Her co-star, Cather­ine Frot, re­quires a lit­tle more in­tro­duc­tion. She’s racked up more than 90 French film cred­its since her 1975 de­but, and is prob­a­bly best known here for The Page Turner (2006), and Mar­guerite (2015), which earned her a Best Ac­tress César Award.

Both are for­mi­da­ble artists, and to­gether they make the screen crackle. We meet Frot first, as Claire, the ti­tle char­ac­ter, a fifty-some­thing mid­wife work­ing at a ma­ter­nity clinic in the Paris sub­urb of Mantes-la-Jolie. She’s an earnest, self-deny­ing, com­pas­sion­ate woman who de­liv­ers ba­bies (we see sev­eral live births), tends her gar­den, and wor­ries about her med­i­cal stu­dent son (Quentin Dol­maire, My Golden Days). Out­side of her vo­ca­tion, she does not have much of what you would call a life.

Then a voice shows up on her an­swer­ing ma­chine. It’s one Claire hasn’t heard in 35 years. It be­longs to Béa­trice (Deneuve), her fa­ther’s glam­orous mis­tress back in the day. Re­luc­tantly, Claire agrees to meet with the woman she idol­ized as a teenager, but who broke her and her fa­ther’s hearts when she left without warn­ing or ex­pla­na­tion.

Béa­trice is clearly in­ter­ested in get­ting to­gether again with the fa­ther, but that proves im­pos­si­ble, as he is no longer with us. She con­fesses to Claire that she has an in­cur­able brain tu­mor and no one to turn to for help. Claire is still bit­ter, but she’s too much the do-gooder to turn her back en­tirely.

Béa­trice is ev­ery­thing Claire is not. In her mid-sev­en­ties, she’s still a femme fa­tale, with a gor­geous mane of flow­ing blonde hair and saucy eyes. She drinks like a fish, eats red meat and fried foods, and chainsmokes cig­a­rettes the length of no. 10 pen­cils. She plays poker for a liv­ing. Some days busi­ness is good, some days not so good. Lately, she’s broke.

Grad­u­ally Claire al­lows her­self to be drawn into a re­la­tion­ship. It be­gins with grudg­ing nur­tur­ing, but soon the in­flu­ence spreads both ways. Claire be­gins to emerge, duck­ling-like, from her shell. She lets her hair down, tries a lit­tle lipstick. She smiles. And she casts a warmer eye on the ad­vances of a like­able truck-driver neigh­bor (Olivier Gourmet).

There are so­cial is­sues bound up in writer-di­rec­tor Martin Provost’s movie, but it’s pri­mar­ily a tale of two women. The in­ter­ac­tion be­tween these great pros over­comes a lit­tle soft­ness of story, and makes this a plea­sure to watch.

The women: Cather­ine Deneuve and Cather­ine Frot

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