I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Huh. French drama The Midwife is almost the same movie as American indie The Last Word, in thematic terms if not down to the small details: an older, rather obnoxious woman and a younger one who needs a bit of a boot in the ass strike up a friendship, to the eventually betterment of both of them, though not after a rocky ride. I watched both films almost back to back, and I’m glad this one came second, because it washed away the terrible taste the first one left. Midwife gets right everything that Word got wrong in its delicately wrought portrayal of the challenges women face and how our friendships are so key to shaping our lives (even if that shaping is sometimes negative). It’s nuanced and unsentimental yet genuinely moving without having to force any of the many emotions it conjures. And while Word suggests that male filmmakers should stay the hell away from trying to tell women’s stories, Midwife demonstrates that it’s perfectly possible for men to understand women well enough to do our stories justice.
Director Martin Provost wrote Midwife’s script specifically for his stars, French legends Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve, and he is beautifully attuned to each actor’s strengths. Frot (Marguerite, La Nouvelle Eve) is the titular midwife, Claire, and the most important birthing she needs to attend to at the moment is the next stage of her life, the labor pains of which are painful indeed: The small maternity clinic in the Paris suburbs where she has worked throughout her decades-long career is shutting down, and she cannot bear to accept a job at the big high-tech hospital nearby that will be taking over their responsibilities and eliminating the warm, personal touch she believes such work requires. (Her tour around the shiny new birthing center is almost like something out of Brave New World.) Her just-grown son (Quentin Dolmaire) is making big moves into his own life, including moving out of their flat and in with his new girlfriend (Pauline Parigot). After being on her own for a long time, she’s fallen into a tentative romance with a neighbor (Olivier Gourmet: Two Days, One Night). She doesn’t really want any of this and has no idea how to cope with any of it, and Frot exudes just the right combination of discomfort with change and desire for a fresh start to make us feel with her and hope for her. How amazing for a movie to suggest that a woman’s life is not over at middle age but ready for a whole new beginning! (This should not be an amazement but so prosaic it’s not even worth mentioning.)
But this is perhaps the worse time for a certain someone from her past to turn up out of the blue: Béatrice (Deneuve: The Brand New Testament, French Riviera), her father’s once mistress whom, we come to learn, was almost like a mother to then teen Claire, until she disappeared one day. Béatrice is breezy, ballsy, a smoker and a drinker and a gambler — the diametrical opposite of careful, considered Claire — a woman who lives life on a really edgy edge; this is Deneuve at her most electric, more unstoppable a force of nature than perhaps she has ever been before, and a testament to allowing women, especially older women, to fully embody their own dangerous selves onscreen. The chemistry of these two formidable and empathetic actors becomes an extraordinary yet subtle clash as Béatrice wheedles her way back into Claire’s life: Béatrice needs helps that she is loathe to ask for, and that Claire is loathe to give; she has never forgiven Béatrice for abandoning her and her father. But perhaps this is another change that Claire is going to have to learn to navigate…
There may not be a lot that’s actually surprising in what happens between these two women, but the lived-in quality of these characters and the authenticity of their journeys separately and together is terrifically satisfying. Stories this good about women’s experiences shouldn’t be so rare.