The midwife of the title is Claire Breton (Catherine Frot), a Parisian woman in her 50s who, after years of bringing new life into the world, suddenly finds herself in the position of escorting someone toward death. It’s been several decades since Claire last saw Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve), her late father’s former mistress who has resurfaced with a brain tumor and a contrite spirit, hoping to use what time remains to make things right.
Things will be made right in due course, though one of the pleasures of this modestly stirring relationship drama, written and directed by French actor turned filmmaker Martin Provost, is its refusal to foist a tidy redemption or life-changing epiphany on either of its two excellent leads. Indeed, the movie’s recognition that people tend to remain their disagreeable, inconsiderate selves, even (or especially) when staring death in the face, may be its most humanizing gesture.
Even after her cancer diagnosis, Béatrice keeps gambling in smoke-filled casinos and ordering the fattiest steak on the menu (with a glass of Bordeaux, naturellement). She gives Claire the ring off her finger and promises to leave her money when she dies, then later turns around and asks for a 5,000-euro loan. She’s exasperating and impossible. But the great Deneuve plays her with such endearing spirit, such an irreducible weave of dignity and desperation, that our exasperation is tempered with genuine affection. From the moment she worms her way back into Claire’s life, she has us on her side.
Provost’s movie jolts to life whenever its two great Catherines are sharing the screen, whether driving each other crazy or collapsing in tears.
This does not preclude us from being on Claire’s side too, even if she’s basically playing the responsible, no-nonsense foil to the feckless and funny Béatrice. “The Midwife” is a pleasingly contrived study in contrasting lifestyles and temperaments. Unlike Béatrice, whose company she barely tolerates at first before gradually warming to her, Claire doesn’t smoke, drink or eat meat. She spends most of her time at work and her free time tending the flowers and vegetables in her garden. Her life may not be much, but she likes it just the way it is.
Of course, even the quietest, most self-sufficient existence is never completely static. And while Béatrice’s presence is easily the most disruptive element in her life, Claire finds herself forced to adapt to changes big and small elsewhere. Her son, Simon (Quentin Dolmaire, the ace find from Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days”), is a few years into medical school but considering a change of path. Paul (the great Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet), the nice truck driver who owns the garden plot next door, is making charming romantic overtures that we sense she will not be able to resist for long.
Meanwhile, rapid technological shifts in modern midwifery are endangering the work that Claire loves and does with such practiced skill. The babies we see being born throughout the film are a gentle reminder of both the randomness and the preciousness of life’s ostensible milestones — and, in the case of one unexpectedly early birth, of how life can seem to stand still while time keeps passing by.
Provost previously directed two dramas about French female artists from earlier, more restrictive eras: “Violette” (2013), an ode to feminist writer Violette Leduc (played by Emmanuelle Devos), and “Séraphine” (2009), a biopic of painter Séraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau). With “The Midwife,” he has shifted from historical portraiture into the more genteel realm of contemporary fiction, but he retains his skill at drawing intelligent, nuanced work from some of the finest actresses in the French-speaking world.
“The Midwife” is an absorbing meander of a movie, prettily shot and a touch over-scored, its subtle take on midlife near-crisis at times reminiscent of “Things to Come,” Mia Hansen-Løve’s superior 2016 drama starring Isabelle Huppert. But Provost’s movie jolts to life whenever its two great Catherines are sharing the screen, whether driving each other crazy or collapsing in tears. Deneuve makes Béatrice an irrepressible life force, a woman confronting her own mortality with equanimity one minute and emotional collapse the next.
Frot has the trickier, more recessive role, one that might easily be underestimated by those who don’t know her as one of her country’s nimblest comic talents. (See her superb, César-winning work in “Marguerite,” the French version of the Florence Foster Jenkins story.) Her arc here isn’t especially surprising: With some help from the slightly batty nuisance who gradually becomes a cherished friend, Claire will learn to loosen up, laugh a little and crack open a bottle of wine. But as Frot’s perfectly judged turn reminds us — you’ll forgive me — it’s all in the delivery.
(In French with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles