Claire (Catherine Frot, “Heureux en France”) is a midwife who lives a quiet but pleasant life in a suburb outside Paris. Her placid days are interrupted by the return of a figure from her past, Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve, “Le Cancre”), the mistress of Claire’s late father. Béatrice is a force of nature whose free-spirited and unreserved personality clashes with Claire’s tempered, careful nature. And yet, Béatrice and Claire strike up an unlikely friendship, beginning after Béatrice reveals that she is dying of brain cancer.
“The Midwife” is a slow burn. Not much happens, per se, but the relationships are so carefully and gently developed that you find yourself engrossed nonetheless. Director Martin Provost (“Violette”) takes his time letting the characters warm up to each other, and the patience is well worth it. It’s a great film, not because it’s big or dramatic, but rather quite the opposite: it makes the most of the tiny intimacies in this quiet slice of life. The heart of “The Midwife” is in the details, carefully layered to create a work that’s rich and emotionally complicated.
The best moments are the beats between the big character confrontations, when simply following Claire through her life. Over and over, we see Claire birth a baby with expert skill and pass it on to the mother. She’s a constant witness to some of the greatest joys and pains these women will ever see, and she gives her whole heart to them, every time. It’s a masterful performance by Frot, equal parts warm, empathetic and heartbreaking as we realize her profound loneliness. That is, until Béatrice arrives.
Deneuve and Frot really bring out the best in each other. Just like their characters, they build on each other’s strengths, and their dynamic feels real and lived-in. Deneuve brings a certain vulnerability to the oftentimes callous and careless Béatrice, and in her capable hands, she becomes a character who’s more tragic than grating, which she so easily could have been. Together, the two actresses are a powerhouse, and by the end of the film, you find yourself caring as much about them as they do about each other. It’s a testament to the writing and acting that a story this simple can achieve the emotional peaks it does.
It’s a beautiful movie. A little sad, a little funny, quietly triumphant, full of earnest feeling. It’s small and personal, but somehow feels universal. At its core, it’s about betrayal and friendship, romance and heartache, birth and death — and all the spaces in between.
There’s a moment near the end of the film when a young woman comes stumbling into Claire’s birthing clinic, in labor and all alone. It’s the middle of the night and the midwives are all on break, so nobody hears her as she cries out for help. She finds them eventually, and the six women help her through her birth. She’s supported from every angle, surrounded by these kind women who ease her fears.
We find out later that this young woman was one of the first babies Claire had ever helped birth, now all grown up and continuing the cycle. Claire wipes away a tear, and I can’t help myself — I do too. Because this is a very old story: women taking care of each other, holding each other up through the pains in their lives, one day at a time.