Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot Are a Winning Pair in ‘The Midwife’

Two very different women find themselves drawn together in “The Midwife,” a French drama not so much about midwifery as it is about women entering different phases of their lives. Catherine Frot stars as Claire, a 49-year-old woman who finds herself at a crossroads when the maternity clinic where she has worked for many years verges on closing its doors. Around this time she hears from Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve), a larger-than-life personality whom Claire hadn’t heard from since 30 years prior, when the older woman left Claire’s Olympic swimmer father, a heartbreak that led to him taking his own life by shooting himself in the heart. Understandably, Claire feels resentment and anger towards Beatrice, but she meets with her anyway, most likely due to morbid curiosity. Beatrice seeks to make things right with her ex-lover’s daughter, and it’s not just because she woke up one day and felt like it – Beatrice has brain cancer.

Right away, the differences between Claire and Beatrice are clear. Tightly wound, Claire prefers to keep her feelings bottled up until she can’t take it, while Beatrice is prone to emotional displays. Claire, being a responsible medical professional, chides Beatrice for keeping up her bad habits that don’t combat her cancer — smoking, drinking and eating red meat. It is also revealed that Beatrice has a penchant for gambling. In addition, she’s quite vain, which is made evident when one of her chief concerns about being operated on for her brain tumor is the possibility of her head being shaved. Deneuve and writer/director Martin Provost don’t hold back from making the viewer and Claire increasingly uncomfortable with Beatrice’s exasperating behavior. Not a lot of backstory is given on what Beatrice has been up to during the three decades she was out of Claire’s life, but it’s apparent that she was not busy cultivating other relationships, as she is left with little support during her twilight years. She turns to Claire not only out of guilt, but necessity, eventually moving into the younger woman’s home.

Some of the best scenes in “The Midwife” involve the two women just sitting and talking, as there is so much hurt there, making the stakes incredibly high when they do something as simple as have lunch together. Beatrice isn’t ready at first to answer Claire’s tough questions. Despite her numerous faults, Beatrice is inherently a good person, and Claire eventually comes to need the older woman just as much as she needs her. Predictably, Beatrice brings out Claire’s lighter side, something that improves her relationship with her boyfriend, Paul (Olivier Gourmet). Both actresses are brilliant, exhibiting such vulnerability here; Frot, as she struggles to contain her emotions as Claire, deals with her abandonment issues and grief for her father all over again, and Deneuve as Beatrice vacillates between being scared and joyful.

As Claire is confronted by her past, she also has to deal with the future and major changes in her life and career. After delivering some shocking news about his personal life, her son, Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), announces his plans to follow in her footsteps and become a midwife, something that Claire finds unbelievable, as midwifery “isn’t men’s work.” Claire’s resistance to change, however, isn’t always a negative thing. She also has to deal with having to start over again so late in her career, possibly at a major crossroads as the maternity unit is more of a birthing factory than a place where young pregnant women are properly cared for. While birth isn’t the center of the film, “The Midwife” certainly opens one’s eyes to how bringing new life into the world has become a profitable business. As for Claire, she earns admiration for her determination not to give in to the money and using her knowledge and experience for good. Her resolve is strengthened after one particularly sweet scene in which she delivers the baby of a woman that she herself delivered 28 years prior.

The Midwife” opens July 21 in Los Angeles and New York and expands July 28 in more select cities.