The Midwife is currently streaming on BBC iPlayer in the UK and it might be seen as an interesting ‘entertainment’ during lockdown. It is a good example of a well-made conventional comedy-drama enlivened by the performances of three of the best Francophone actor-stars around. Given the title and the two female leads I was slightly surprised to find it was written and directed by a man, Martin Provost. It was only later that I remembered that Provost had already made two celebrated female-centred films, Séraphine (2008) and Violette (2013), both historical dramas based on the struggles of real characters against the sexism of their times. Violette starred the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos. Provost’s 2020 film, La bonne épouse (How to be a Good Wife) stars Juliette Binoche and in Sage femme we get Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot. This demonstrates Provost’s standing as a writer-director with actors.
The midwife of the title is Claire (Catherine Frot), a woman approaching 50 who is proud of her work and of her son who she brought up as a single parent and who is now studying medicine. Claire works in a local maternity clinic with a team of women she knows and trusts. Her main leisure pursuit is her allotment on the banks of the Seine outside Paris city centre. Her life is settled and possibly a little dull. Three narrative ‘disruptions’ will soon sort that out. First she has learned that the clinic is to be ‘taken over’ by a modern hospital group. Second, a phone call out of the blue announces the ‘return’ of her father’s mistress from many years ago. This is Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve) with a story to tell. Finally, looking for peace on her allotment, Claire discovers that the old man on the neighbouring plot is ill and his son, Paul (Olivier Gourmet) has taken it over. Paul is an international long-haul lorry driver (and unattached). There is at least one other surprise for her coming up but I won’t spoil that. Even with just this brief description of the characters, most of us could write a script of sorts, though not with the skill of Provost who is also a novelist. Fortunately with Deneuve, Frot and Gourmet we can instead simply sit back and enjoy the fun.
The principal ‘driver’ of the narrative is Béatrice. Why has she turned up now? The answer comes quickly. She has a probably terminal cancer in the form of a brain tumour. She has never been ill before and she is determined to see out her days having fun if possible. She also has other issues to resolve with Claire. This isn’t a medical drama so Béatrice’s decline and her response is mainly used as a basis to ‘throw’ Claire. The two women are seemingly polar opposites. Claire has given up meat and claims not to use alcohol or cigarettes. She wears her long hair tied back (essential for her job) and doesn’t use make-up. She rides her bike to work. As one reviewer put it she seems to be almost an affront to French culture – she even eats brown rice! Of course Béatrice is the opposite in every way.
In the Press Notes, Provost tells us about his own birth and how he was saved by a skilled midwife. That was his inspiration but what he has produced is also like a fable, specifically Jean de la Fontaine’s re-telling of the Aesop fable, ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’. Béatrice, partly through the demands that she makes of Claire, breaks through the latter’s reserve and ‘opens up her up’ to the possibilities of life, ‘saving’ her in a different way. It occurs to me that this could be an interesting case study in how to structure a narrative, but don’t let that suggestion put you off. This is solid entertainment. Provost chose his three leads carefully and all were keen to take part. Deneuve and Frot are very different kinds of actors but they work extremely well together. There are six ‘live’ deliveries of babies in the film and Catherine Frot had to learn the job sufficiently well to perform convincingly in the delivery room. This reminds me of La tourneuse de pages (2006) in which she had to be a convincing pianist for chamber music recitals. Filming new born babies is not allowed under French law so all these scenes had to be shot in Liège (closer to home for Olivier Gourmet).
The careful casting also extends to Claire’s son Simon played by Quentin Dolmaire, the young lead in Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days (2015) and Béatrice’s ‘adventures’ also feature a very brief cameo from an actor with an even longer career, Mylène Demongeot, an international star of the 1950s and 1960s. Sage femme was a hit in France with 700,000 admissions. I’m surprised it didn’t attract larger audiences. In the UK it reached less than 17,000 in cinemas. I wonder how many people have now seen it on TV? It’s on iPlayer for another three weeks. Do give it a go.