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.
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.
Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation and a major influence on those who followed. A retrospective of much of his work was shown in New York earlier this year where Keith was able to see three films and in a BFI touring season in the UK a few months later. I couldn’t get to any of these screenings in Melville’s centenary year but I have finally managed to get hold of his last film, Un flic from 1972 (he died in 1973).
The Optimum PAL DVD released in 2007 delivers a screen image that seemed a little ‘blue’ and washed out to me. DVD Beaver’s report suggests that this is likely to be an accurate presentation and certainly the tone of the film is suited to a ‘cold’ aesthetic. Melville’s crime films – polars in France – had a chequered history in UK distribution. Researching Un flic, I discovered that it was given a BBFC ‘X’ certificate as The Cop in July 1971 after unspecified cuts. The certificate went to Gala, yet the film wasn’t released in the UK until 1974 – in a dubbed version distributed by Columbia-Warner. There is a review by Tony Rayns in the September 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. The DVD offers a print in 1.85:1 ratio but IMDb suggests the original was 1.66.1. An alternative English title Dirty Money appeared on UK dubbed cinema prints and US DVD releases at a later date. Melville’s polars appeared in the UK when ‘popular’ European films were often dubbed and released through commercial ‘chain’ cinemas. What is now considered a ‘specialised film’ (or still ‘arthouse’ by some) like Un flic, in the 1960s and 1970s appeared in Odeons and ABCs alongside spaghetti Westerns, Italian horror and Scandinavian soft porn.
Dirty Money is not a bad title for the film whereas Un flic is arguably misleading. Alain Delon (who featured as the criminal in Le samouraï (1967) and Le cercle rouge (1970) for Melville) is this time the cop. His adversary is played by the American actor Richard Crenna (dubbed into French for the accent despite being able to speak French) and Cathy, the woman who has a relationship with both men, is played by Catherine Deneuve. Delon gets top billing but I suspect that Crenna has more screen time and it often feels like he is the focus of the narrative. Simon (Crenna) runs a Parisian night club but is planning two major robberies – the first to raise money to finance the second.
The narrative structure of the film is unusual. Melville offers us not one but two long robbery sequences and between them these take up a significant amount of the film’s running time. Neither of the two sequences could be described as ‘action-packed’ but they are both very well thought out and, by including every painstaking stage in the procedure, Melville is able to make them gripping. The opening bank robbery is being set up as the credits appear on screen. It’s set on the windswept promenade of a town in La Vendée on the Atlantic coast. Not a soul is in sight (it’s December and raining heavily) but when the robbers in coats and fedoras enter the BNP building on the corner there are several customers already being served just before the bank closes. The getaway from the robbery is quite novel. The cut from the deserted beachfront into the inviting bank interior signals the ‘artificial’ nature of the mise en scène. During the robbery Melville cuts away to central Paris where Commissaire Coleman is setting out on his evening shift and he gives a voiceover from his car about the tedium of his work. Meanwhile the robbers in an American Plymouth car exchange cars for a Mercedes during a clever getaway procedure.
This artificiality is present in many of the scenes that follow. In one, Simon and Cathy leave the club in a car driving towards what looks suspiciously like a painted backdrop of a Paris street ahead. A cut then takes us into a Van Gogh street scene with the camera pulling back to reveal that the painting is in a gallery (the Louvre?) where three of the robbers are meeting. The gallery too appears to have a painted backdrop to represent an extension to the gallery space. I was amazed to realise that this Melville film made in 1971 vies with Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) as a cause celèbre of matte painting – and model work. When the second robbery occurs on a train, Simon is lowered onto the moving train from a helicopter and this is accomplished with a studio mock-up of the flying ‘chopper and models used extensively for the train and chopper shown in long shot. It is so obvious that you feel it must be deliberate and the crudity of the presentation clashes with sophistication of the script. (The sequence lasts around 20 minutes.) I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to sleep on a train again given the way that Crenna breaks into a locked apartment.
The same artificiality manifests itself differently in the performances of Delon and Deneuve in particular. Delon is almost expressionless in his scenes, a cold and deliberate law enforcer. Deneuve is in her immaculately coiffured ice maiden mode. Perhaps it is Crenna’s Hollywood background that makes him appear slightly warmer. One of the strongest elements of Melville’s polars is the relationship between the investigating lawman and the principal criminal. In Un flic the two characters are mirror images of each other – a situation compounded by their shared interest in Cathy.
The film begins with the quote above from Vidocq (1775-1857), the founder of the French national police force. The subtitles translate this as “Man has only ever inspired ambiguity and ridicule in a police officer”. So Coleman is shown as peremptory in his treatment of the routine cases brought to his attention and shows little emotion even when faced with the murder of an attractive young woman. Coleman seemingly treats everyone coldly (and this seems also true of his relationship with Cathy). The other two contacts that he makes are with a gay couple, an older man and an under-age youth who has attempted to steal a valuable sculpture, and with his own informer, a transgender character who is beautifully dressed and carefully made up. This person is treated badly by Coleman. Because Simon is a mirror image of Coleman, does this mean the flic is ambiguous about himself? Melville doesn’t give us any clues. It’s as if he wants to explore the terrain of the polar, drawing on its American cultural links, primarily in terms of its locales and mise en scène as well as its usual scenarios – the carefully planned crimes, the police procedures and the wordless communications about friendship and betrayal. Significantly, the key scene between Simon and Coleman is mainly about the eyes.
I need now to rewatch the earlier films, but for the moment I’ll be investigating other 1970s thrillers, political thrillers, as part of a new major season at HOME. Before I leave Un flic, however, I want to comment on the reviews and synopses for the film in the archives and on the web. When I found David Overby’s review in Sight & Sound Autumn 1974 I was amazed to see that he transposed the two central characters and also situates the bank raid at the beginning in the Paris suburbs! I respect Overby’s work and I know how difficult it was in the days before internet resources to check cast lists and locations, but these mistakes seem extreme. Tony Rayns in his review gets the train robbery wrong thinking the train is going to Italy via Marseilles. Even HOME’s programme notes (presumably using BFI notes) sets the bank robbery on the ‘Riviera’. There seems to be an almost pathological desire to misrepresent what is actually on the screen. I doubt this is deliberate but it must mean something – perhaps the dubbed print is the problem? In reality, Melville’s script is finely detailed. So the train heist is planned for a stretch of railway line, “the oldest electric line in France, dating back to 1963”, which is being upgraded and therefore diesel-hauled. The robbers have twenty minutes to complete their task before they run the risk of being entangled in overhead lines when the helicopter attempts to retrieve Simon from the train. Whatever one might think about the strange triangle at the centre of the film, the robberies are presented in incredible detail. I think film students could learn a great deal from Melville’s work on this film narrative. He remains for me the past master of the crime film.
A potiche is a useless ornament, in sexist language a ‘trophy wife’. It’s a brave man who would ever describe Catherine Deneuve as a ‘trophy’. But that’s the premise of François Ozon’s entertaining and beautifully made film, an adaptation of a ‘boulevard comedy’ first staged ten years ago or more (Ozon says ten, but Ginette Vincendau in Sight and Sound says it dates from 1983 or earlier). Boulevard theatre is solid middle-class middlebrow entertainment, traditionally despised by film critics but often popular with the public and with certain film directors. Ozon himself has got form in this type of comedy with 8 Women (France 2002) – his previous outing with Catherine Deneuve.
The plot involves a bourgeois family who own an umbrella factory in a small town. The factory boss Pujol is a tyrant who has control because his wife is the daughter of the company’s founder. The factory is going down the pan and the workforce is striking. At this point Pujol is taken ill and to her surprise Madame Pujol (Deneuve) finds herself in the driving seat. She proves to have an unusual ally in the local communist mayor and MP (Gérard Dépardieu) and soon has the factory moving forward. But Pujol recovers and wants his role back – the next generation of Pujols prove to be important in deciding how the factory will fare in the future.
As the still above illustrates, Mme Pujol finds herself in new relationships with both her daughter Joëlle and her husband’s secretary Nadège. This is the core of the film with a commentary on changing opportunities for women and I agree with Ozon and Deneuve that the narrative has plenty to say in contemporary discussion of gender equality, especially in relation to figures like Ségolène Royale and, God help us, Marine Le Pen.
I think that the film works on every level and I enjoyed it immensely. I’d pick out three reasons why: the tight and assertive direction which keeps up the pace, assured performances from a starry cast and excellent production design in evoking 1977 but making it seem vibrant not bathed in nostalgia. I particularly loved the designer umbrellas. The whole film was shot in Belgium, so it’s a great ad for the Belgian film industry.
It’s distressing that there are some negative reviews, mostly from younger audiences who seem bored by the film. It makes you wonder what modern audiences would make of Ozon’s hero, Rainer Werner Fassbinder who made similar but much darker films.
Here’s the trailer with a taste of the film: