It takes a certain inverted chutzpah to make a drama about someone who’s a real fuddy-duddy. A French fuddy-duddy (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Claire (Catherine Frot), the title character of “The Midwife,” is a strenuously decent person, and that’s part of her fuddy-duddyness. She’s the most experienced and devoted midwife at a struggling maternity clinic in Paris. We watch her deliver several babies during the film’s opening minutes, and it’s obvious that she’s wonderful at her job, and that it leaves her sleep-deprived and emotionally drained because it’s a calling, a mission that occupies the center of her existence. Maybe that’s because nothing else does.
Claire, who’s got an adult son in medical school (though he’s about to flake out of it), has always been a single mom. The clinic she works at is getting ready to close down, because it can’t compete with the kind of tech-driven “baby factories” that Claire abhors and doesn’t think she can bring herself to work in. Facing a silently convulsive midlife moment, she’s a bit like the Isabelle Huppert character in “Things to Come”: isolated, out of sorts, trying to cope with a world that’s changing faster than she wants to bother keeping up with. Huppert’s suddenly on-her-own philosophy professor carried herself with a Huppertian élan, flirting with a younger dude, incarnating the Decay of Culture even in her despair. Catherine Frot, who plays Claire, is an acclaimed actress with 10 César Award nominations to her credit, but she’s sort of like the alternate-universe version of Huppert: froid in a prim rather than electric way.
Her Claire is a bit of a pill. She doesn’t drink, she eats virtuous vegetables out of her garden, and though she’s pretty, she wears a look of dyspeptic reticence that can suck the air out a room. The movie’s French title is “Sage femme,” and though I realize it doesn’t mean this, that title still kind of sums it up: “The Midwife” is the story of a sage woman. How sage is she? She’s so sage that even her midlife crisis isn’t quite a crisis. It’s more like a rainy day that won’t end, which may be why the film, proficently written and directed as it is by Martin Provost, is wanly touching and monotonous.
Claire needs to be saved from herself, and according to the movie’s logic, the only thing that can do that is a vulgar, drunk, broken-down figure from her past — played, with full-tilt disheveled life force, by Catherine Deneuve. She saves Claire, but more than that she saves the movie. Or, at least, she saves it in spots, for about five minutes at a time. Long ago, Deneuve’s Béatrice was the mistress of Claire’s father. He was a ’70s competitive swimming star (we see him in photographs looking like the French Mark Spitz), and Claire hasn’t heard from Béatrice for 30 years. Provost’s screenplay doesn’t spell anything out too clearly, but Claire is obviously someone with major daddy issues, which means that she’s going to have an even bigger problem with the mistress she never liked. She wants nothing to do with her, but Béatrice is back for a reason. She has brain cancer.
The illness doesn’t stop her from drinking through the afternoons and chowing down on the biggest cuts of prime rib she can order, and Deneuve’s fearless turn takes off from those appetites. She makes Béatrice greedy and without shame — a slattern who’s been around too long to put on airs. It’s a shock to see Deneuve leave any trace of her elegance behind (usually, she clings to it), but it all reminds you what a terrific actress she can be. The performance — desperate, tough, funny, naked — is ripped from the observation of experience. You feel like Deneuve knows this woman, and we end up knowing her too.
If only we could feel that way about poor, noble, muffled Claire! She’s romanced by a truck driver who shares her garden, played by the terrific Olivier Gourmet, and by the end of the movie, after she spends close to two hours chewing on her midlife non-crisis like cud, it’s clear she’ll come out fine. But was that ever really in doubt? Her dogged self-possession is her most admirable quality, and also her most boring. She’s a good human being. She’s just not a good movie character.