By Liam Lacey
A year without a Catherine Deneuve movie or two would feel strange, like a wet summer, or a slept-through holiday.
The delicate-featured French actress, who first appeared onscreen 60 years ago, is now 74 and keeps releasing a couple of movies a year. As she matures, she shows aspects you don’t automatically associate with the living porcelain figurine of her youth: Funny, plump, authoritative, over-bearing, empathetic and emotionally raw; — in short, a real character.
She’s all those things in The Midwife, a genial puffball of a drama from writer-director Martin Provost (Séraphine, Violette). Deneuve plays Beatrice, a life-long hedonist who, facing a grave health crisis, decides to look up the daughter of a man she had an affair with years before. The Midwife sticks to a popular French sentimental formula: A rigid middle-class person has their life upset and reinvigorated by a rule-breaking, affirming outsider.
More importantly, The Midwife is a two-hander designed for a couple of major French women, a generation apart. The younger woman, Claire, is played by Catherine Frot, an actress in her late forties who out-acted Meryl Streep in Marguerite (the French version of the Florence Foster Jenkins story).
Here, she’s much more subdued as the midwife of the title, a single mother with a son in medical school. She treats her work at a neighbourhood maternity clinic with a religious devotion, as we see, in a series of graphic maternity clinic scenes, where she comforts mothers and pulls wet, squalling babies into the world. Claire doesn’t drink wine or eat meat, sleeps days and works nights. For fun, she grows vegetables in a communal garden. She sees herself as a preserver of a care-giving tradition: The French word for midwife is “sage femme”, or, literally, wise woman, though the script pointedly mentions, as the old maternity clinics are being replaced by modern “baby factories,” that the word is being replaced by the gender-neutral “birth technician.”
One day, Claire receives a call from Beatrice, who was the mistress of Claire’s father, when Claire was an adolescent. Thirty years before, Beatrice’s departure left Claire and her now dead father devastated.
The women agree to meet in a cafe. Beatrice, though seriously ill, is dressed for a date. She orders the steak, fries and wine. She presses herself on Claire, promising gifts and an inheritance, either determined to make amends, or simply afraid of dying alone.
Initially, Claire rebuffs the woman, a painful memory of her past, but her over-active empathy organ wins out and she can’t maintain her resistance. The high-living Beatrice and frugal Claire clash, then make-up, and grow closer. Claire, in effect, makes the decision to mid-wife Beatrice through her next life stage. At the same time, Claire begins to open up to new possibilities in her life, including a growing romance with truck-driver Paul (the great Olivier Gourmet, of the Dardennes’ brothers film fame), who has a plot next to hers in a communal garden.
The pleasure here is in the scenes the two Catherines share, the complex of resentment and tenderness that bounces between the two women, rooted in their common love for the same man: Claire’s late father, a handsome '70s’ swimming champ.
In an amusing twist, Claire’s son, Simon (Quentin Dolmaire) is a ringer for his grandfather - so much so that when Beatrice first meets the young man, she plants a kiss full on the young man’s mouth. Simon is startled, but not displeased, because, of course, no matter what role she is playing, Deneuve is inescapably still Deneuve.
The Midwife: Directed and written by Martin Provost, with Catherine Deneuve, Catherine Frot, Olivier Gourmet and Quentin Dolmaire. The Midwife can be seen at Famous Players Canada Square Theatre and The Kingsway Theatre.