“What would you do if someone from your past reappeared?”
And what would you do if your step-mother, who is a bit like Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, suddenly appears in your life after thirty years, with the intention of starting an endless party in your presence? Part tragedy, part comedy, all drama, Martin Provost’s The Midwife is an unforgettable experience and features Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot together on screen for the first time.
Claire Breton (Catherine Frot) is a midwife, her job of twenty-eight years has given her pleasure and pain as well as a huge amount of experience helping new mothers deliver their babies into the world. Her life is about to change in many ways. With her son Simon (Quentin Dolmaire) away from home at medical school the last thing she expects is an answerphone message from her deceased father’s mistress, Béatrice Sobo dite Sobolevski (Catherine Deneuve). Claire’s father committed suicide after Béatrice walked out on him thirty years ago, so meeting her step-mother after such a long time brings back many bad memories. Additionally Béatrice’s hedonistic lifestyle is debauched and decadent and this proves to be troublesome territory for Claire who is teetotal, non-smoking and shuns unhealthy food. But Béatrice reveals to Claire that she has a brain tumour: “What scares me is if I lose my memory or become paralysed. I don’t mind if I die.” The uptight Claire somehow feels obliged to allow the terminally ill, long absent woman back into her life but initially keeps her at a distance, not wanting to deal with her idiosyncratic nature and profoundly irresponsible activities, from gambling to glugging down alcohol against medical advice. Claire’s escape from work, and indeed Béatrice, is at her allotment and she strikes up a friendship with the neighbouring plot-holder’s son Paul Baron (Olivier Gourmet). But she has further issues to deal with when Simon and his girlfriend arrive with an announcement about their own impending arrival and she faces redundancy when her clinic closes to make way for commercial modern birth facilities: “The new baby factory. Not for me.” So what can possibly turn Claire’s life around amidst all these tricky situations or is she facing a never-ending cycle of surprise revelations?
“We’ll never understand each other.”
The Midwife is something special, a film that comprises a multitude of elements which offer both delight and emotion. Beautifully written and observed, this is a story where issues surrounding life and death are embraced from all perspectives, from births that are delightful or traumatic to terminal medical conditions, taking in humour, drama, tragedy and burgeoning romance along the way. Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot are thoroughly engaging in the lead roles, with frumpy Claire constantly shocked about her estranged step-mother’s appalling behaviour and yet feeling compelled to help her, their performances representing characters who are polar opposites complement each other beautifully.
Claire has issues with her long standing employment because the clinic she works at will be shut down – she has been offered a job at a modern, fully equipped establishment, but it is an organisation where it is considered that technology will take the place of midwives’ experience, something we are constantly shown to be untrue, as Claire, who has delivered multiple generations of babies, not only helps with the practical issues of childbirth, she also handles the emotional elements for young mothers who may be uncertain and scared. Her dislike of the increasingly emotionless modernity becomes all to apparent when a father at the birth of his wife’s baby spends the whole time videoing the event on his mobile phone in the delivery room. And so an uncertain future is made more precarious by the unexpected appearance of Béatrice who, unchanged in crass commentary, declares to Claire on their first reunion that, “You always did look older than your age.” However Béatrice is not consistently abusive, her attitude derives from her often drunken need to be centre of attention, after her admission that she has a terminal brain tumour she declares, “I believe in pleasure, I looked up coffins on the internet,” and that she doesn’t want to be cremated but rather, “When I die you can dump me in a rubbish bag and throw me in the Seine.” And perhaps this bad influence is can actually help liberate Claire. She begins a relationship with allotment neighbour Paul and Béatrice is delighted that Claire indulges in a little debauchery even if she isn’t sure about Paul initially, “A truck driver? That’s one fantasy I never had,” she announces. She soon changes her mind when she gets to drive a lorry, with Paul and Claire as passengers, whilst drinking and smoking.
The Midwife is a remarkable film of sadness and joy, friendship and antagonism, love and loss, birth and death amidst a range of deeply amusing situations and genuinely moving moments. A real treat.