The Midwife

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Please note this article contains spoilers

The Midwife’s director, Martin Provost, is known for creating biographical works centered on female artists; his Séraphine (2008) follows the emergence of legendary primitivist painter Séraphine de Senlis, and Violette (2013), traces the ascent of 1940s French novelist Violette Leduc. Provost’s latest, The Midwife (2017), doesn’t stray far from the director’s thematic oeuvre, but while his previous works focus on strong women beginning to perform and perfect their crafts for willing and receptive audiences, The Midwife instead opens on a seemingly strong and content woman trying to keep her own craft relevant.

Claire (played by ten-time César nominee and two-time winner, Catherine Frot) is a practiced midwife with a clear passion for her work. Within the film’s opening minutes, we witness Claire smoothly deliver multiple babies in seemingly difficult situations, all while maintaining a cool head and emanating a soothing warmth for her individual cases. Meanwhile, Claire’s craft and capabilities are becoming obsolete. Despite the romanticism of personalized birthing experiences (think how popular a TV show like Call the Midwife is), these practices are now considered old-fashioned.

Midwifery is being replaced by baby-factory assembly lines – hyper-sterile birthing centers where workers’ experience is secondary to the newest technology, and midwives are modernly (and quite coldly) referred to as “birth technicians.” Claire and her artistry are faced with a choice: she can ‘sell out’ and start working in one of these aseptic spaces, or she can refuse, and seek purpose outside of work.

Outside of work however, Claire is entirely lackluster – she’s proud and brittle in social situations, seems unshakably tired, is condescendingly healthy, and is clearly still hurt from someone or something that's passed. She seems to be drained of vitality as the inevitable closure of her birthing clinic draws nearer, and even the film's camerawork begins to reflect this encroaching fate. Within the film’s first act, elevator doors, the clinic’s doors, apartment doors, restaurant doors, and taxi doors close on Claire, and depending on the situation, she’s either left outside or let temporarily in. Her craft is being desperately undermined, and even the camera is unsure that Claire can make it through to the next scene.

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Enter Catherine Deneuve, the long reigning queen of French cinema. Exuding all the style, exuberance, and nonchalance characteristic of the Parisian femme, Deneuve’s character interrupts Claire’s trajectory with a phone call. Béatrice (Deneuve) is Claire’s father’s mistress from 30 years past, who inexplicably took off on them and left her father devastated. She’s now hoping to reconnect with Claire because she has upsetting news of her own: she’s developed a brain tumor that’s given her a short time to live, and she’d like to set things straight. This is soon shown to be unlikely, as Claire is harboring a hurt grudge against Béatrice for what she’d done to her family. It’s only once Beatrice starts shedding her effortlessly classy image, showing her emotional depth, and eventually succumbing to her symptoms (and as an effect, acting as a dependent on Claire – exactly what she needs) that Claire warms to her, and begins warming up to her world in general.

Both Claire and the film’s audiences should be absolutely grateful when Deneuve’s Béatrice enters the scene. Despite her terrible diagnosis, Béatrice is a source of such attractive energy that she turns the film from a potential melodrama pitting Claire against the medical system into a lighthearted look at birth, death, full circles, and wine. Both Claire and Béatrice speak bluntly about death, but while Claire embarks on somewhat patronizing monologues about dead bodies as objects and the Descartian mind-body separation, Béatrice instead takes on an irresistibly elegant, blasé attitude. She informs Claire of how she’d like to be buried in between perusing a fancy restaurant’s menu, and after declaring that Claire shouldn’t spend more than “peanuts” on her body’s burial, she proceeds to order the biggest tenderloin that the café has available.

There’s something crudely satisfying about watching Béatrice blissfully consume vast quantities of unhealthy food and drink (bookended by countless cigarettes) in front of uptight Claire, despite the obvious effect that her lifestyle has on her diagnosis. Béatrice states early on, “I don’t care if I die. I lived the life I wanted,” and it’s true, she seems to have followed her passions and whims to a place of contentment. The film features countless scenes of Béatrice taking things in – wine, food, cigarettes, conversation, friendship, music – and she’s plump and vibrant with her collection of experiences, while Claire instead regularly refuses things, and seems comparatively glum. The film’s French title is Sage Femme, which is the translated term for “midwife,” but taken apart and directly translated, the title also creates a play on the idea of a “wise woman.” Neither Claire’s careful life nor Beatrice’s more reckless one seems sustainable, but which is the wiser?

Of course, the women’s extremes are evened out when Béatrice’s avid consumption of life receives an ever-impending end date, and Claire once again becomes needed as her caregiver. The needs of Claire’s obsolete career and her already grown up son are replaced with Béatrice’s everyday desires, and in a sense, both of their lives have come full circle. The cyclical nature of life is evident across the film, from Claire’s son Simon expressing an interest in midwifery, to a clever shot of Simon juxtaposed with an unseen image of his grandfather, and finally, to Claire treating the woman who used to be her pseudo-parent figure. The generations of this film mimic each other, even when they’re quite unaware of their similarities.

The Midwife’s story is altogether quite optimistic: despite becoming obsolete for a matter of time, it’s crucial to sustain the hope that one’s time of importance may very well come to pass again, and that you may as well feast on life until that time comes. As Béatrice insists, upon ordering a plate of something large and fried and being chastised for it, “I believe in the powers of pleasure.”

Sophie Tupholme 

Freelance film writer, GFT Front of House

July 2017

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