All of us, one way or the other, are the products or prisoners of decisions we make throughout our life.
That’s not usually the result of careful, well-thought out planning, of course, save for the those of us brandishing five-year plans and a peculiar sense of self-wrought manifest destiny; rather it’s an accidental agglomeration of one decision here, an impetuous move there, a Sliding Doors-like witches brew that gets us, for better or worse, where we are now.
If you asked often taciturn midwife Claire Breton (Catherine Frot), a woman who only seems to come alive in the presence of her patients, who, near-universally, caught up in the magic of childlife (which trumps the messy reality by a considerable margin), affirm her worth as a human being and the professional choices she has made.
Outside of the soon-to-close clinic at which she works, a small concern that takes its time with its patients as opposed to the modern “baby factory” hospitals that Claire vehemently abhors, she is another person entirely; not unhappy necessarily but, like many of us, caught in a reasonably pleasant rut that doesn’t excite but that doesn’t alarm either.
She has her ageing but passable apartment in a tall block at the edge of town, to and from which she bikes, less out of health concerns that the inability to afford a car – midwifery may come with professional kudos and patient affirmation but a less than stellar pay packet – the allotment on the river where she grows vegetables, and flowers, and her swimming-obsessed son Simon (Quentin Dolmaire) who is at medical school, partway through a demanding degree.
Life is agreeable then, if not spectacular and into it one day, via an answering machine, comes Béatrice Sobolevski (Catherine Deneuve), a woman down on her luck but possessed still of the charming art of the hustle, who left Claire’s father so bereft 35 years ago when she disappeared one night that he killed himself soon after.
Claire, as you can imagine, isn’t thrilled to see her.
While she has no great love for her mother – she was, and is, not close to her in any way, shape or form, with only her father having mattered to her – and so doesn’t object to Béatrice in some sort of marriage-wrecker context, she remains angry with the woman who was, in many ways her actual mother wasn’t, a source of feminine comfort and guidance, the kind that matters deeply to an awkward, fumbling adolescent girl.
As she mentions at one point to a clearly-regretful Béatrice, she is angry because one day she had a real stand-in mother, and then with no notice, one day she didn’t.
Béatrice, free-spirited, nomadic Béatrice who gambles and cadges money from friends to get by, even squatting in their apartments to put a roof over her head, simply got up and left one day, only regretting the emotional tsunami she left in her wake years later when she’s dying of cancer, penniless and friend-less and looking for some sort of human connection that’s worth a damn before she shuffles off her mortal coil.
From this most unexpected of reunions, one that Claire isn’t sure she wants or needs and which Béatrice desperately craves in a way that is actually quite affecting, is borne a pleasingly slow-moving drama that understands that life is a series of decisions that lead us one way or the next and for which we must answer at some point.
In the case of vivacious, devil-may-care Béatrice, who drinks wine like it’s going out of fashion and seems to have fries and mayonnaise with everything – to the firm disapproval of teetotalling, red meat-eschewing Claire – that time is most certainly now and while she comes seeking, not forgiveness so much as reconnection (she is unaware Claire’s father is dead), Claire has no interest in meeting her halfway, or even any way really.
At least not initially.
But as her life begins to open up – she meets fellow gardener Paul (Olivier Gourmet), a truck driver with a ready smile and big heart, Simon makes a life-changing announcement with the power to change both their lives, and her job, of course, finishes – she slowly comes around to the idea that she and Béatrice have to make amends and that she owes herself, if not her father’s onetime lover, to make this happen.
What sets The Midwife, rather winningly known in French as Sage Femme, well apart from some half-baked melodrama is the fierceness and commitment of the performances by two of the greats of French cinema.
As Beatrice, Deneuve, in sparklingly vital form, never slides into Auntie Mame camp theatricality, always anchoring her ageing bon vivant in authentic melancholia, her fading vivacity, laced with vulnerability, loss and regret.
Frot too is impressive with her repressed midwife, Claire, a woman who has sealed herself up almost hermetically against the vagaries and disappointments of life, inching forward with great reluctance to change and renewal, even if she is cautiously enjoying the agents of this low key, believable awakening.
Together through a series of finely-wrought, low key scenes that nonetheless come with significant emotional wattage, they deliver a portrait of the way in which the twists and turns of life lead us to particular places, and how we face a decision when the consequences come a-calling of resenting them or facing up to them and dealing with in some sort of positive fashion.
While The Midwife comes with some sort of happy resolution, it is also changed with the bitter taste of regret and great loss with Béatrice especially lost in the messy afterwash of a giddy life lived out of a suitcase, one in which each day came and went on its own, seemingly isolated merits.
That’s never the case for any of us however, and this warm, real, charming and unflinchingly honest film never lets us forget that innate truth, providing in the process a salutary lesson on the way life isn’t over ’til its over and we should never accept the current state of affairs as the end game while time still remains to change it all.