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.
Although the English title of this film does make sense as a reference to the film’s narrative, I prefer the French title which is more subtle and has more referents in its translation as ‘Double Lives’. This is another Olivier Assayas film which delves into formal questions about film, narrative, narration etc. and does so by exploring the behaviour of those involved in writing and producing ‘texts’. In this case the whole discussion is then worked into a familiar genre narrative of extra-marital affairs. Assayas has plenty of form in this area. The most recent film of his that I spent time thinking about was Clouds of Sils Maria (France 2014) in which Kristen Stewart plays the personal assistant to a moody star film actor played by Juliette Binoche. Much earlier in his career Assayas made Irma Vepp (France 1996) in which Maggie Cheung, playing herself, has a tough time making a film with a director played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Assayas later married Ms Cheung. Léaud himself played in several films directed by François Truffaut including one in which Truffaut appeared as a director making a film – La nuite américaine (France 1973). It should be clear from all of this that we are in the rarefied world of the mise en abîme – the story within a story and a blurring of identities. Given that Doubles vies has a starry cast there is also likely to be a mismatch of expectations in which audiences looking forward to an entertaining marital comedy instead get a great deal of blather about the onslaught of digitalisation. One IMDb user calls it a “mediocre Ted Talk”. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s not a totally inaccurate analysis.
Guillaume Canet, who has often played action roles, is here cast as Alain, the head of a small but prestigious publishing house. He is married to Selena (Juliette Binoche), a celebrated stage actor who has become successful as the star of a TV series (a cop show of some kind). At the start of the narrative, Alain is in the process of deciding whether to publish the next novel of his friend Léonard (Vincent Macaigne). It isn’t clear at this point whether Alain knows that Léonard is having an affair with Selena. Alain himself is busy with his hot (in the industry sense) new colleague Laure (Christa Théret), his ‘Head of Digitalisation’. This extends into a physical relationship. Despite both having plenty to do, Alain and Selena also have a child who is seen occasionally with his nanny. There are two central themes in the film. One is how and when the analogue publishing industry will be forced to become yet another predominantly digital media industry. This is an industrial question about how publishers will organise their output, what staff they will need and how they will develop relationships with writers. It is also about something less tangible about prestige and high art credibility. Can an e-book ever have the cultural cachet of a well-bound and printed book? The other theme is around the ethics and credibility attached to ‘autofiction’, the form of literature defined as autobiographical fiction. The rise of this form in recent years has been more pronounced in French literature than in most other national literary cultures.
Léonard’s novels are seen as autofiction which means that he is writing about his affair with Selena. Can he really expect that Alain and his other friends won’t work out that his lover in the novel is Selena? Léonard also has a partner, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) and she is busy being the media ‘minder’ for a politician who predictably drives her crazy. I watched the whole film but I admit that at times I did find it wearisome. The discourse about digitalisation is not particularly new or clever (admittedly the film is two years old). I think Juliette Binoche is wasted and I have a real problem with Vincent Macaigne. I’m sure he is a nice guy but I can’t see women falling for him as they do in several recent French films. I obviously don’t understand romance in France but it is odd that Macaigne seems to play similar buffoonish characters in several films. The only one of the characters in Doubles vies I could bear to spend time with would be Valérie. That said the dialogue in the film is witty and if you like this kind of French marital comedy this is a well-made example.
Doubles vies is currently streaming on MUBI.
Swimming Pool is an intriguing film which on release in 2003 attracted a lot of attention. It’s now streaming on MUBI in the UK. It proved to be the second of three collaborations between director François Ozon and star actor Charlotte Rampling. It was early in the features career of Ozon who made his reputation first in short films and who has gone on to become a highly prolific director. Ms Rampling is also highly prolific but she began her career in the mid 1960s. She belongs to that small group of middle-class female British actors, born roughly at the same time, who have managed to build careers in both Anglophone and Francophone cinema. Jacqueline Bisset and Jane Birkin are the other two members. There is something about these women that has caught the attention of French (and other non-British) directors and they have been cast on several occasions in roles that question attitudes towards sexuality – almost as if a challenge to assumptions about national types of sexuality is key to their appeal. All three began their careers as models in the early 1960s before moving into films.
In an interview at the time of Swimming Pool‘s release, Charlotte Rampling spoke about the death of her beloved sister Sarah in 1966 and how her grief had affected her both at the time and at various points in her subsequent career and personal life. Working with François Ozon, first on Under the Sand (Sous le sable, France 2000) and then this second film enabled her to experience a kind of abreaction in which she could deal with her memories. In Swimming Pool, Charlotte Rampling’s character is named Sarah as a tribute to her sister. Allied to this, Swimming Pool sees Rampling cast opposite Ludivine Sagnier who at that time was roughly the age of Rampling’s sister when she died. Sagnier was, however, already a very experienced young performer, had already featured in two of Ozon’s films and was touted in some quarters as a new Bardot figure.
The plot outline is simple but the narration is more complex. Sarah is a successful writer of a crime series featuring the unlikely-sounding ‘Inspector Dorwell’. Her small independent publisher (played by Charles Dance) senses she needs a break and suggests that she should use his villa in Provence as it is now off-season but the weather is still good there. Sarah agrees and sets off for for France. We know little of her background except that she leaves behind her elderly father and it appears that she lives in his house. In Provence she finds a spacious secluded house with a swimming pool and gradually she relaxes before Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), a young woman who claims to be her publisher’s daughter, appears and moves in, taking the second bedroom. Julie has a series of one night stands with men she brings home. At first Sarah resents these intrusions and tries to block them out with earplugs. But eventually she begins to loosen up and to engage with Julie who has started to use the swimming pool.
From the beginning of the film, Philippe Rombi’s score introduces a score with a Hitchcockian feel, even though nothing disturbing has actually happened yet. In conjunction with Yorick Le Saux’s excellent camerawork and Charlotte Rampling’s performance we know that something is just not right about this seemingly straightforward holiday/writer’s retreat and the tension gradually builds. As well as Hitchcock, I also sense Polanski in the narrative. One neat touch is the crucifix hanging over the bed Sarah uses. She takes it down and puts it in a bedside cupboard. Later in the film, the crucifix will reappear. I was also impressed with the costumes Sarah wears in the first half of the film and the boring food she consumes in the house. The clothes are drab and the food is bland but gradually she becomes looser and her appetites change she drinks more alcohol, she dines out. Amongst the men who appear the two most important appear to be the caretaker, an older man in the village and a younger man who works part-time in the bar-café in the small town. I’m not going to spoil the narrative in any way by revealing any more plot details. There is clearly going to be something that happens between Sarah and Julie and it is going to be key to follow what happens to Sarah’s writing as she ‘loosens up’. Sarah writes what appear to be police procedurals but she and John have discussed/implied that she might write something slightly different. Perhaps she will let her imagination develop in this different environment? Julie is a highly provocative figure, often naked or bare-breasted and deliberately goading Sarah.
The narrative has an open ending which seems to have caused some consternation. After thinking about it for a couple of days I think I’m quite ‘satisfied’ with the ending. It seems to work in several different ways, i.e. several different readings of the film could be made which are equally plausible/implausible. The ingredients of the narrative, the villa, the strangers, the pool etc. are each suggestive of genre elements and there are plenty of precedents. There is a famous French film with a similar title, La piscine (1969) which shares many of the same genre elements – the writer, the drinking, the pool, the sex etc. – and which incidentally has a young Jane Birkin in a secondary role as the daughter of one of the three main characters. There are many others too. A swimming pool, sunshine and a secluded house is the perfect location for this kind of film. The various cinema viewing classifications for the film are interesting – ‘universal’ in France but NC-17/R in the US and 15 in the UK. I don’t think it is an ‘easy’ film for audiences but it is certainly provocative and it made significant profits for what seem to be mainly French production companies (I can’t work out why it has a co-production designation) and Charlotte Rampling’s performance won her a European Film Award. The film was in competition at Cannes – early recognition of Ozon’s status as a director.
Just One Look is a French TV serial from TF1 featuring Virginie Ledoyen, an actor with a long history of parts in film and TV since appearing as a child back in 1986. I saw her earlier this year in a revival of Ma 6-T va crack-er (France 1997). Just One Look is available to stream as a ‘Walter Presents’ offering on All 4. I decided to start watching unaware of the original property that was adapted for this production. It wasn’t long before I started thinking about the big-budget and very successful French thriller, Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne, France 2006). The narratives seemed similar.
In the earlier film a man who whose wife was murdered several years earlier suddenly finds himself a suspect because two more bodies have been found close to the murder site. The accused man goes on the run and then receives a message that suggests his wife is still alive. In this more recent narrative, Eva’s husband Bastien goes missing from a hotel where he has taken their two small children after a pop concert. Eva then discovers a photograph of a group of younger people in a bar several years earlier. One of them is Bastien and one is a woman with her face scratched out. As a younger woman, before she met Bastien, Eva had a frightening experience at a rock concert – which is why she didn’t accompany her husband and children this time. She has tried to forget the concert which ended with her in hospital but the photograph and her husband’s disappearance makes Eva worried about the safety of her children.
As well as some similarities between the two narratives, there is also something about the new narrative, with its fast action and overall pacing, which reminds me of the close links between French and American crime fiction. I’m sure you are ahead of me here – I finally confirmed that the two narratives were both adapted from stories by the American crime thriller and mystery writer Harlan Coben. Coben was also involved earlier with a similar French TV serial Une chance de trop (No Second Chance, 2015) as writer and executive producer. No Second Chance is also on All 4. He has also written three other British and French-based long-form narratives. He seems to be operating on Just One Look as a ‘showrunner’ with a team of French writers.
Just One Look is a complex narrative with an array of characters but one of the interesting lead roles is a contract killer played by Jimmy Jean-Louis who is supposed to have grown up in Haiti and who carries the name Eric Toussaint. He’s the only Black character of note in the serial – which distinguishes it from the police procedurals and banlieue dramas set in Paris. (The co-writer/producer Sydney Gallonde is Black and the character is changed from the novel – a conscious attempt to diversify casting?) I think we are meant to be in the next ‘outer ring’ of more affluent areas outside Paris, though the story takes us into Montmartre a couple of times. The carousel in a square close to Sacré-Couer is a favourite place for Eva’s small son Max who is on the autistic spectrum. This is useful in plot terms because Max is both quite difficult to keep safe but also a dab hand at remembering car number plates. His slightly older sister, Salome, is very bright as well.
So, what to make of this? Coben appears to have taken his familiar narrative model and switched gender roles – the man goes missing, the woman has to become investigator. The police in charge of the investigation are women. It seems to tick all the right boxes – except that the police in this case seem to be completely inept. As several viewers have pointed out, Salome seems capable of finding useful leads on Google well ahead of the police and the team from Engrenages (Spiral) headed by Laure and Gilou could have solved this case by Episode 3 (Just One Look has 6 x 50 minute episodes). My guess is that Coben is the problem here. I found that the plot became repetitive and although it had some interesting twists, it lacked sufficient credibility to make the final resolution as satisfying as the writers presumably hoped it would be. Those French films that have taken American influences and re-worked them to create the polar in French cinema have often created a relationship between a police investigator and a lead criminal that holds the whole narrative together. Coben’s narratives work in a different way. I haven’t read the the original, but from extracts available online, I can guess some of the problems they faced. I think that the narrative would work better if the hit man Eric and the wife/mother Eva were more directly in a prolonged confrontation. The story needs stripping back and re-working more in the French tradition. Virginie Ledoyen and Jimmy Jean-Louis are strong performers in roles with potential that is not realised from my perspective.
I realise that I have fallen into the trap of focusing only on the writers/producers of a TV long-form narrative. The serial was directed by Ludovic Colbeau-Justin as just his third directorial project. (He was previously a cinematographer but directed the previous Coben adaptation No Second Chance.)
The first two episodes of this serial were broadcast on BBC4 on Saturday evening without much fanfare and little on IMDb. I was struck straightaway by two thoughts. This seems like an American-influenced narrative and as the image above suggests, we have several ingredients of a narrative reminiscent of American films and TV. Panic on the beach of a small seaside resort with the Mayor centre frame, aware of the possible consequences of some form of tragic event on the prosperity of the community. It took me a little while to confirm that one of the leads in the serial is played by Marie Dompnier who I enjoyed so much in the two seasons of Witnesses (Les témoins) in 2014 and 2017. Though La dernière vague has different writers, this opening episode has a scene that is similar in some ways to Witnesses Season 2. In the earlier narrative Ms Dompnier is a police detective who investigates an incident in which a bus full of passengers seemingly frozen to death is found on a rural road. In this new serial she is more directly involved as one of a group of surfers taking part in a local event when a mysterious cloud forms over the sea. The surfers literally disappear for several hours and then return seemingly having suffered no injury. Indeed, some of them seem to have had any medical issues ‘improved’ or ‘resolved’. But they have no memory of what actually happened to them.
At the end of episode 2 we are left with the strong suggestion that the cloud is merely the signifier for some non-human force, possibly a natural phenomenon or an alien consciousness? Is this horror or science fiction? So far this ‘force’ seems to be more beneficial than dangerous but this might be dependent on how humans respond. There are several family melodrama elements developing as well so perhaps there will be some kind of moral questioning of these relationships. And finally there is the ecology vs capitalism issue. In one sense it all looks familiar in genre terms. The seaside community comprises attractive people and the beach in the Landes south of Bordeaux in Nouvelle Aquitaine is inviting. it’s also good to see a lead character, Ben, who is a chemistry teacher. I’m looking forward to the next two 50 minute episodes – there are six in total.
The Observer‘s reviewer has already trashed the serial and the Telegraph has published a jokey review. This kind of genre mashup often seems to rile those critics who happily accept crime fiction. I wonder why?
La vérité seems to have received a relatively cool reception by international critics and those few audience members who have managed to see it in the UK and the US where it has only been released online because of Covid-19. A general reaction is that it is witty with great performances but doesn’t have ‘depth’ and is perhaps a disappointment after the international success of Shoplifters (Japan 2018). I don’t agree with this. I did find the film a little difficult to get into but I think that was partly to do with watching it on my TV set on a Summer’s evening rather than in a darkened cinema. Once I was past the first 20 minutes or so I became engrossed and now I want to watch it again. Fortunately it is now on MUBI.
For those who aren’t Kore-eda Hirokazu fans, I should point out that this is an interesting hybrid – a film by the current international arthouse champ from Japan, made in France with two of the most important French actors, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. And, just to make it extra tricky, there are several scenes in English with the presence of Ethan Hawke (who probably speaks reasonable French given his films with Julie Delpy and Kristin Scott-Thomas). This is Kore-eda’s first production outside Japan and he follows two other Asian directors in making a film in Paris. One of Kore-eda’s inspirations, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, made Le voyage de ballon rouge (France-Taiwan 2007) (also with Juliette Binoche) and Iranian Asghar Farhadi made The Past (France-Italy 2013) with Bérénice Bejo. In both cases, the directors introduced characters from their own national cinema contexts into a French setting. Kore-eda is much more subtle in his references to ‘Japaneseness’ I think.
This film is an interesting mix of family melodrama (Kore-eda’s own strength), comedy and a film about acting and filmmaking (i.e. dealing with ‘truth’). Catherine Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a veteran diva of French cinema who has just published an autobiography and when we first meet her she is giving an interview in her Paris home to a journalist. This is interrupted by the arrival of her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a scriptwriter living in New York, with her husband Hank ( Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). It soon becomes apparent that Fabienne’s book is titled, ironically, ‘The Truth’ but is clearly fabricated in many ways, including important omissions of friends, relatives and co-workers. Fabienne is also working on a new film, a science fiction story which forms a mise en abîme – a story within a story which reflects back on the overall narrative of the film. Fabienne plays a woman approaching 80 who bizarrely becomes the aged daughter of a young woman holding back the ageing process by spending most of her time in space. The casting pits Fabienne against a young actor Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel). Will Fabienne bring her own prejudices about acting styles into her playing of the woman in the film? Of course she will.
My own first reaction to the film was that Kore-eda was again exploring different genres as he did in the The Third Murder (Japan 2017), a film that did cause consternation among some of his international fans expecting more of the same. It’s always a brave move to try something new, especially with a new crew and working in a second and third language. I’ve had to re-think that a little because in the Press Pack Kore-eda tells us that the origins of the film go way back to a play script he started to write in 2003 about an actor in her dressing room one night as she is coming to the end of her long career. The push to develop this idea then came from Juliette Binoche as far back as 2011. Kore-eda suggests that something about the film may also derive from his feelings about the death of the Kirin Kiki, the veteran actor for whom he felt affection and respect for her acting qualities. He links this last point to his desire to make a film that has a lightness and an ending which he hopes will mean that audiences leave a screening with a “little taste of happiness”. This is also because he wants to express his appreciation of the work by Binoche and Deneuve. Ultimately this is another great Kore-eda film about a family.
Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound reminds us that the idea of performed moments of reflection on past relationships was also a feature of After Life (Japan 1998) and that the filmmaking scenes in this new film, because it is shot in a studio with green screen have a ramshackle quality and an artificiality which is reminiscent of the earlier film. He points out there is also a specific ‘memory object’, a crucial element in the earlier film, which is also important here. In this case it is a child’s toy, a theatre which has been broken but which will be mended during a fleeting visit by Pierre, Fabienne’s estranged husband and young Charlotte’s grandfather – the theatre was made for Lumir, the daughter who struggles with dreams of being an actor like her mother.
The Japanese references come mainly from the setting in Autumn and the use of the location of Fabienne’s house. Kore-eda tells us:
I wanted the story to take place in autumn because I wanted to superimpose what the heroine goes through at the end of her life onto the landscapes of Paris at the end of summer. I hope people will see how the greens of the garden change subtly as winter approaches, accompanying the relationship between mother and daughter and colouring this moment of their lives. (Press Pack statement.)
Much of this is achieved by overhead shots of the garden but there is also a stunning image of a single tree seen, through the windows of the house, that is inserted almost like an Ozu pillow shot. This leads in turn to Fabienne’s solo walk with her little dog to a small East Asian restaurant (Chinese, I think?) in which she sits feeding her dog and watching a small family gathering celebrating something with an older woman as the centre of attention. This whole sequence seems very much part of Kore-eda’s world and its effects/affects are enhanced by the cinematography of Éric Gautier whose extraordinary list of credits includes recent work with Jia Zhang-ke on Ash is Purest White (2018) and Summer Hours (2008) by Olivier Assayas with Juliette Binoche in a family melodrama which some have seen as another comparison candidate. I was equally impressed with the music in the film by the Russian composer Alexei Aigui. Kore-eda tells his story through subtle mise en scène and music nearly as much as through his direction of his wonderful cast. I must also pick out the young girl playing Charlotte. One of Kore-eda’s greatest strengths is his direction of children. Charlotte is a very important character and Kore-eda generously recognises Ethan Hawke’s contribution in helping Clémentine Grenier, who never been on a film set before, play the role so effectively.
There is a great deal more to say about the film but I don’t want to spoil your pleasure. This is a perfectly-formed work of art by one of the very best living filmmakers. I hope you can get to see it. Here’s a short clip from early in the film which includes a reference to Fabienne’s great rival as actor and star, Sarah Mondavon.