I love French movies. They are like reset buttons for the soul. An American movie with the same plot as a French film would be cheesy or overly dramatic like a soap opera, but French films feel organic, understated and emotionally resonant. The Midwife places the iconic in a quotidian setting, conveys the beauty of routine and knowing your place in the world while simultaneously being open to disrupting that routine to expand your joy and capacity for love.
The Midwife stars Catherine Frot, whom I first saw and adored in Haute Cusine, and the legendary Catherine Deneuve. For people who bemoan the lack of acting roles for older women, French films are the answer—ask Kristen Scott Thomas. French films often feature complex, fully human women on screen. Even though in real life, the Catherines are only separated by twelve years, Deneuve is supposed to be old enough to be Frot’s mother.
Frot plays Claire, a midwife who is at the threshold of several changes: her son has left the nest, her job is ending, and she has no idea what the future holds. Claire is a woman who is comfortable in her skin and environment. She is a midwife who easily connects with her patients and just as easily relaxes by plunging her hands in the dirt at her country shack/garden. In contrast, she is just as comfortable in her apartment and traversing her neighborhood, which has seen better days since she hardly seems shocked by her elevator not working, and the community has more brown and black faces than white, which is the universal sign of blockbusting. Her unease and discomfort only emerges when her routine is disrupted either by a friendly neighbor or an unexpected message. She has walled up some of her emotions.
Claire is plunged back into the past when her father’s mistress, Beatrice, played by Deneuve, calls her after decades of no contact. Claire the grown woman must now confront the pain of Claire the teenager then balance who she is with what she wants. Beatrice is at a turning point. She is still a hot ticket who is running out of money, options and time, but her visit isn’t mercenary. She is embarking on a goodbye tour of all the old places and people that she loved, but shocked that time has changed both when she was not looking. She is kind of like an aging rock star-an eternal adolescent who is able to do what she wants with no consequences until she sees Claire, and the bill comes due.
When they meet, the audience discovers that they share an unspoken ghost story without the supernatural elements. Throughout The Midwife, the viewer unknowingly sees hints of that spectral presence, but it is purely a function of biology and genetics, which should not be a surprise given the title of the film. It is resolved in a beautiful, simplistic scene when the two women surrender to the past and stop running away from it and each other. This scene enlightens the viewer to an earlier scene when Claire starts crying and indicates that Claire is haunted. They can stop fearing the past’s ability to curse the future, embrace it and move forward keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t.
The Midwife reminded me of a reverse Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta and a far less sensational Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. The Midwife differs because it is about two women meeting at a point of past shared trauma that they relate to in different ways then moving forward together to heal whereas Julieta and Elle focus on a woman moving forward alone in her pain though there are people in her life who want to help, but cannot share the experience of the trauma. In Julieta, that trauma has little to nothing to do with the main character though she feels responsible and is paralyzed by guilt. In Elle, she knows that she is not responsible, does not permit it to shake her confidence and chooses to move through life and take charge of it. The Midwife is an intriguing combination of both ways of coping. Claire still has to take care of her garden, go to work and deal with Beatrice. Beatrice still has to hustle, get a place to live and tend to matters of life and death. Life does not stop just because something, physically, psychologically or emotionally disruptive happens, and bills still need to be paid.
The Midwife elegantly conveys who women are no matter how brief the appearance. There is one scene where Claire visits one of Beatrice’s loan sharks/friends. It is a scene that seems extraneous and like it should be on the cutting room floor. Because Beatrice does not have a real routine because she is a nomad, it is simultaneously the equivalent of how we learn who Claire is by witnessing her daily routine. This brief depiction of a seamy and knowing woman is a microcosm of what the film does for the major characters. The movie never loses sight of who these women are, and even though they change and are open to altering the way that they have lived up to now, they do have some immutable characteristics. Claire’s final moment as a gainfully employed midwife is emblematic of this faithfulness. It is also a silent admonishment of a way of life that we as an audience should strive for-a connection to a way of being in harmony and striking balance between one’s nature and improving.
The Midwife is not a perfect movie, but because it does such a great overall job at authentically relaying such ephemeral concepts as life and loss, I think the film earned a waiver at some fromagey moments that worked such as Claire’s last minute work blast from the past or her eleventh hour romance with the most understanding and sensitive truck driver to grace the silver screen. I do think that the movie ultimately pulled punches by not dealing with the messiness of death and illness, which would have disrupted the burgeoning beauty of new or second chances at life that was the overall theme. Sure it fit with the character’s profile, but for a film that embraced the cycle of life, I wish that it followed through with the idea that there are many types of midwives—into and out of life. It would have been a challenge to make death as picturesque and real as life, but it can be done. The high number of paid, but uneaten meals featured in the movie aggravated me. I’ll take the omelette! Where’s the beef? The only way that we beat the French: doggy bags!
I know that people watch movies when they don’t feel like reading, but don’t let the subtitles deter you from checking out a foreign film. The Midwife is a great gateway foreign film because it is not pretentious, and the characters are relatable. French films feel like daily life distilled to its most beautiful essence. This film is a call to return from the exile to Eden, a plea to find your heaven on Earth and a communion of lost souls, both living and dead.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.