In a film about a traditionally female professional with two strong female leads (Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve), it’s a bit surprising to learn that this story is semi-autobiographical for its male director, Martin Provost. Provost, a French director best known for a few other strong women (2013’s Violette and 2008’s Séraphine), was himself born to a midwife—a courageous young woman who gave her own blood in order to save the compromised baby. It’s one of the fun little details The Midwife’s (Sage femme) DVD extras unveil about the well-received character drama that debuted earlier this year at Berlinale.
Perhaps due to its real-life inspiration The Midwife doesn’t shy away from taking a purist approach to its birthing scenes. The babies Claire (Frot) delivers often have a whitish-blue glaze over them that seems altogether alien to the pristine babies oft shown on screen. It turns out Frot took enough midwife training to deliver real babies at a couple of clinics in Belgium.
Like cinematographer Yves Cape’s long tracking shots of rural France’s dirt roads (which Claire rides along on her bike) and lovely shots of the Sienne (where Claire’s college-aged son is apt to take a swim) the naturalness of the maternity ward seems to want to strike a primal cord, begging viewers: Let’s get back to our roots, shall we?
Regardless of a few intense birthing scenes, The Midwife is really a quiet sort of film. Claire lives a simple life—planting her own vegetables in a shared plot and abstaining from alcohol and other indulgences. She’s a heads down, low-maintenance type of woman.
That’s why the arrival of Beatrice (Deneuve), her foil, is such a shock to the system. Beatrice is a former lover of Claire’s father. She suddenly left 30 years ago because retirement in the countryside wasn’t quite her jam. A vivacious woman, she’s more likely to drink, gamble, and get merry like the Roaring Twenties never ended. But when a brain tumor slows her down, the aging woman reaches out to Claire for reconciliation. The film follows their unlikely friendship.
Deneuve is something of a legend in France and takes on the eccentric, fast-talking Beatrice, with a natural ease. But it’s Frot who’s the true revelation of the film. Claire, like many in her position, isn’t altogether ready to exert the emotional maintenance Beatrice requires—especially given her 30-year-old grudge for the woman whom she feels destroyed her father’s will to live. But Claire is a natural caregiver, and just as she routinely brings new life into the world, she is the perfect person who ease Beatrice’s path to death. The plot sounds slightly Touched By an Angel-ish, but what saves it is Claire comes across as so real. Frot has a fantastic ability to show a wide range of emotions—frustration, wariness, relief, and joy. With a less capable actress, The Midwife, ultimately a message of one woman’s transition from giver of life to one who comes to fully live her own life, wouldn’t be possible. Throughout the film’s 117 minutes, Beatrice and a new love interest, Paul (Olivier Gourmet), thaw at Claire’s Puritan temperament, a transformation that is as gradual as it is satisfying.
It’s helpful that Claire is learning that a glass of wine may not be the gateway to hell because her professional life almost demands a drink at the end of the day — or at least, she deserves some form of relief. The small maternity clinic where she’s worked for more than 20 years is shutting down, to be replaced by a corporate-run baby factory, where the next generation can be delivered with an impersonal by-the-numbers efficiency. While on the surface Claire seems confident about her future—she refuses offers by the senior staff at her clinic to move on with them—she’s also in denial. Even on the clinic’s last day, as the staff works on inventory, she reveals she hasn’t started looking for a new job.
It’s serendipitous, then, that she’s having this sort of renaissance in her personal life as her professional life falls apart—because, as we all know, crises of money can take one off life’s intended course quicker than anything. The Midwife doesn’t let us in on how a woman so intimately tied to tradition will find her way in this technology-driven world, but Provost at least gives hope that these two truths can live simultaneously: Capitalism will continue to drive the world. But, with a little effort, we can each find our own way.
The DVD extras are raw (unedited), but are substantial enough to merit purchase for fans of Provost’s work. There’s a 20-minute interview with Provost that provides some background on the impetus of the film and the intended themes and moods. An 11-minute press conference at Berlinale allows audience questions for Provost, Frot, and Deneuve, including one question so rude—a woman asks Deneuve how it feels to have been in several masterpieces then to be in this one that’s not—that it’s sure to provoke a chuckle.
To be fair, The Midwife probably isn’t a masterpiece but it’s satisfyingly thought-provoking.