Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Which is the truer sign of strength? Refusing to change in the face of adversity, or the ability to adapt, sometimes even abandoning long-held convictions when circumstances change? The Midwife shows no predilection towards one or the other, instead providing a glimpse into how two women with very different yet intimately intertwined lives respond to terrible news with their own versions of fortitude.
Midwife Claire Breton (Catherine Frot) enjoys a secure, if somewhat humdrum, life. The impending closure of the clinic where she works casts some doubt on the immediate future, yet she still has a grown son, a homey apartment, and a flourishing garden to tend in her spare time. She does not smoke or drink, nor does she indulge in flashy clothes or make-up. We find her perfect foil in Beatrice Sobolewski (Catherine Deneuve), her father’s former lover and a bon vivant with expensive tastes who smokes, drinks, and gambles her way through life. Beatrice left during Claire’s adolescence, reappearing in the grown woman’s life after receiving a troubling diagnosis of brain cancer. Her hopes of reconciling with Monsieur Breton are quickly dashed with the revelation that he killed himself shortly after her departure; this also explains Claire’s frosty civility when the pair meet face-to-face. Yet Beatrice’s lifestyle has left her with no close friends or family upon whom she can rely during her illness. This helplessness appeals to Claire’s instincts as both mother and midwife, bringing the two women closer in spite of an unresolved past.
Director Martin Provost succeeds in producing a genuinely human film. The Midwife tells a small tale, aspires to no grandiose philosophy, and in its modesty provides ample material for further contemplation. The performances of his two leads are in large part the reason for this accomplishment. As Beatrice, Ms. Deneuve exudes a magnetic vulnerability. One constantly wonders if the interplay of confidence and helplessness masks a calculated dependence, or if we are watching the final defenses of a once-proud woman crumble away. In contrast, the steadfastness of Ms. Frot’s Claire gradually looks like more of a crutch than a noble character trait. Her stoic mask is broken by anger and joy alike, fallibility making her all the more sympathetic. She wears lipstick, lets down her hair, and finally reciprocates the flirtations of her neighbor at the garden all as miniature facsimiles of the high-spirited life Beatrice has lead.
The two women frustrate one another in grand ways and emulate the other in small ones. Exuberance and stoicism bleed together without glorifying the middle ground; their differing paths do not seem to have yielded any difference in the number of regrets Beatrice and Claire harbor. Perhaps that is the simple, but affecting, message in The Midwife. No manner of living can entirely avoid heartache; we can only do our best and must recognize that same goal in others, no matter how differently they go about it.
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