‘We’ll never understand each other.” Claire (Catherine Frot) stands abruptly, ready to leave the restaurant where she’s just sat down with Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve). A long shot near the start of Martin Provost’s The Midwife (Sage Femme) reveals other diners, oblivious to the drama at center screen. Béatrice gazes up at Claire, surprised at her upset: “We were just starting to be friends again.”
Claire doesn’t see it that way, but she sits, for a moment, as if trying once more to be “friends again”. The brief exchange that follows suggests her limits, in part by adding detail to the backstory you know a bit about, that Béatrice 30 years ago had an affair with Claire’s father, and that when she left him, he killed himself. You also know that they’ve met this afternoon because Béatrice is facing a devastating diagnosis of brain cancer, and Claire, who has felt betrayed for 30 years, isn’t sure whether to help or abandon Béatrice.
The scene at the table ends as Claire gives up again, frustrated by Béatrice’s flamboyant self-absorption. If she’s really concerned about her health, reasons Claire, she might rethink her consumption of meat, cigarettes, and alcohol. “You’ll stop feeding your cancer,” she says, then walks out for emphasis. The camera lingers on Béatrice, who remains seated long enough to pay the bill with money she pulls out of a sandwich baggie she has stuffed in her purse. “A pain in the ass,” she pronounces, “Just like her father.”
With this the camera cuts to the sidewalk, where it follows Claire’s back, along with Béatrice, accelerating her commotion. “Why are you doing this?” she gasps, “Do you want me to have an epileptic fit on the sidewalk?” When at last Claire slows and they continue their conversation, the camera keeps moving, swinging and cutting from one to the other woman, as each makes her case for her outrage or her need. The dynamic is plainly melodramatic, but it will soon turn into something else too. As the women come to share more time together — as you know they will — their rhythms turn more predictable and their resolution all but inevitable.
The familiarity of Martin Provost’s movie tends to vitiate Béatrice’s energy, especially in the ways that this energy is set up. Repeatedly, she’s set against Claire, her determination to keep drinking and smoking opposed to Claire’s veganism and habit of riding her bike to work, her fondness for gambling contrasted with Claire’s work as a dedicated midwife at a clinic that’s closing, her carelessness about Claire as a child completely unlike Claire’s dedication (as a single mom) to her own son Eric (Quentin Dolmaire), currently a student in medical school. It happens that he and his girlfriend Lucie (Pauline Parigot) are also pregnant, and oh yes, Claire has just met a new guy, Paul (Olivier Gourmet), an international truck driver who’s equal parts sensitive, devoted, and absolutely supportive of Claire’s independence.
As much as Claire prides herself on that independence, the film is premised on the notion that she needs to loosen up, and that Béatrice embodies just the right mix of charisma and wildness she might emulate. “I believe in the power of pleasure,” she asserts, and really, who could argue? That pleasure takes various forms, sometimes presented in full view of Claire, so you might observe her initial distaste and evolving admiration, and at other times observing Béatrice without Claire, as when she heads off to smoky back rooms to play cards with stereotypical gangster types.
The Midwife also provides occasional glimpses of Béatrice’s experiences as she sees them, the frame blurring or in hectic motion when she feels faint. At such points, Claire is luckily nearby, so she might rescue her (and, of course, respond with the benevolence she feels for her other patients). Such images of Béatrice’s experience don’t grant you access to what she feels so much as they remind you of Claire’s apparently infinite compassion — not that you need to be reminded.
As you observe Claire observing, you’re also encouraged to appreciate her appreciation of Béatrice’s chaos, as her developing intimacy with Paul and episodes demonstrating her wonderful work as a midwife, as well as a charmingly awkward sex scene (with Paul) that leads to a morning view through a window, showing flowers and pretty blue sky. In this case, your view of her view is not frightening, but heartening. It’s good to go off script, especially in a way that adheres to formula.
As the film follows Claire’s trajectory, it lurches ever more enthusiastically into that formula. As much as she must first reject Béatrice’s recklessness, she and you come to see that Claire’s more exigent handicap is her own anger, self-limiting and based on fear. And so, as Béatrice serves as Claire’s “magical” figure, her model for better “understanding”, for a more fulfilled, less confined life, that role is in itself clichéd and constricting. By film’s end, you’re hoping against hope that she’ll break free.