The two women at the center of “The Midwife” could not be more different, superficially.
Claire (Catherine Frot) is a 49-year-old single mother and the film’s title character, having delivered babies for the better part of three decades out of a small clinic that is now on the verge of closing. Abstemious in her habits and a bit tightly wound, Claire avoids alcohol, tobacco, red meat and other rich foods and, if she can, drama.
Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve) is a childless woman in her 70s who has been, for much of her adult life, what one might euphemistically call a kept woman, partnering with one man of means — often married — after another, in exchange for lodging, jewelry, cash or other emoluments. The former mistress of Claire’s father, Beatrice suddenly shows up looking for her old lover’s daughter. But 30 years after the breakup, Claire isn’t ready to reconnect, even though she and Beatrice were once close. Ebulliently unfiltered, Beatrice has a fondness for cigarettes, booze, steak — and a good argument.
Both women, as it turns out, are also in need of closure.
Beatrice’s unexpected arrival is accompanied by two revelations, one of which, unfortunately, is revealed in the trailer. Don’t watch it if you’d rather enjoy the film as intended. These dual announcements precipitate the kind of conflict that Claire, who feels betrayed by Beatrice, has otherwise managed to eliminate from her life. At times, the head-butting feels slightly forced, as if demanded by the requirements of cinema, not real life.
The French drama by Martin Provost (“Violette”) is largely a showcase for its two leads. Frot — so good in 2015’s “Marguerite” — holds up the heavy end of this two-hander, which also incorporates lively subplots involving Claire’s earthy new suitor (Olivier Gourmet) and a willful adult son (Quentin Dolmaire). For her part, Deneuve delivers a memorable performance as well, in a role that, in other hands, might have been little more than a foil. Beatrice’s joie de vivre gives Claire a reason to want to loosen up. That process of letting go is the engine, however low horsepower, that drives “The Midwife.”
Claire and Beatrice eventually come to realize that they are not entirely opposites after all, nurturing a rapprochement — maybe even a rapport — that lends the film’s themes of birth and renewal a deeper and more resonant meaning. In French, the film’s title is “Sage Femme” — an old term for a midwife that literally means “wise woman.” Provost’s film is, in the end, a story about attaining the wisdom that comes from forgiveness and the acceptance of those things — namely the past and the future — that none of us can control.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains sexuality, brief nudity, some strong language and scenes of obstetrics that, while non-graphic, are sometimes intense. In French with subtitles. 117 minutes.