Director. Martin Provost. Screenwriter. Martin Provost. Music. Grégoire Hetzel. Cinematography. Yves Cape. Editor: Albertine Lastera. Cast. Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourmet, Quentin Dolmaire, Mylène Demongeot, Pauline Etienne, Audrey Dana, Marie Paquim. Producer. Curiosa Films / France 3 Cinema / Versus Production. Camera (color, widescreen): Yves Cape. Drama. Comedy | Comedy-Drama. France. Duration 1hr 57mns. 2017. Cert. 12a.
A midwife Claire (Catherine Frot) gets an unexpected call from her father’s old mistress, Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve) and they overcome long held exclusion from each other’s lives to put together a new relationship of friendship. This is the first time these great actresses have worked together. The film begins with a picture of Claire at work and the medical drama of new born life is as a metaphor for new beginnings. Martin Provost has some brilliantly composed lines and it is often like a novelist describing the minor detail, painting the larger picture we are eased into. That bigger picture is the enduring power of connections sharing different memories and moving on to form a new warmer, tender beginning, in the later chapter of their lives. Claire’s kind hearted strength of having been the midwife and someone who continues to deliver babies, is faced with career choice with Hospital ‘efficiencies’ causing a sweeping away of the old and this too is another form of metaphor for change in someone’s life. We assume we have three acts, the junior, the summer then the winters tale. The unkind conveyor belt mechanised world is not indifferent but is certainly less intrinsically human and money too features across this film as a ‘commodity’ of trade. The new regime would be in – out, out, which troubles her conscious of what world we need enter at birth. Béatrice has been the cavalier capricious free spirit which Claire’s father made his mistress, possibly a paid companion, against the backdrop of Claire’s upbringing and own sense of family which was insular and having had mixed messages. From her fathers philandering and her mothers burden; little is revealed about her, of being never seen to be happy but moderately raging.
Tale of two Catherine’s
Frot (Marguerite) and Deneuve (3 Hearts) came at this with half of France, the attached to film half, full of anticipation of a Gallic weft of modern love and fidelity covering a period post 1969 and the quiet revolution dealing in the present with past times and establishing new revisions of life. Claire’s husband was a swimmer of some skill and a successful sportsman. Think Mark Spitz lookalike, (younger ones use a search engine) virile, moustachioed, swimmers body and he fell off the public world of sport, no longer attaining the adoration, in the void, of his closest, maybe, so his spirit was held together by Béatrice. Domestic life for Claire, an only child, was fraught and she recalls the part of Béatrice in her childhood course. Nantes? is where Claire lives and she is content in this town with long attachments. A beautiful moment – of directorial/screenwriters complicit, comes later at another birth scene. There are many and quite graphic. Some involving presumably ‘clinical’ models. There is also a clear heads up on Béatrice’s condition which is life threatening. Béatrice’s condition is a fulcrum to the establishment of a new ‘maternal’ relationship and it has a great deal of very thoughtful and deliciously cinematic force in the minuscule which French Cinema teases out for droplets of screen genius. Cafe scenes are particularly all enveloping. Firstly they are basically a place for reasonably priced food of quality and habitually patronised – the polar opposite of the ‘nameless/named’ posh restaurants where good food is seen by the practicing chefs as your privilege to consume, these edible artworks. Splendidly adroit is the detail,
Martin Provost delivers key speeches on these moments. Reveals often happen over a dinner plate. Not the minor ‘I am a vegetarian’ ‘I don’t drink, I get too emotional.’ Lines are a soufflé and rise to perfection – without giving too much hubris to what is simply a good meal well taken – as this film provides. Some lines I forbid myself from passing on but they are a testimony to the heft and construction of the medium of such ‘soft’ cinema. Martin Provost’s gift of language and his humanity along with the delivery of the well crafted scenes, is a fundamental graceful exploration of our values, conceits, misinterpretations, bad times, good times with readjustment and a sensuous affirmation of life with new beginnings – if delivered by The Midwife. Some births are difficult (some recent thought is given to it being the origin of violence at the pre-birth and delivery itself portending fate!) and this is a tale of taking life as it happens to exist.
The pleasure Claire receives from being The Midwife, induces a maternal instinct which seems to kick in over other parts of her life. From the juniors she tutors, to the to-be father intent on seeing and retaining this memory of his child’s birth, she places him in control alongside her.
Prowess and excellence
Séraphine (2008 seven César Awards) Violette, are most renowned Martin Provost films, and the previous years (2015) Things To Come, was a deeper themed film, using premier acting talent (Isabelle Huppert a lapsed professor roping a young man) and now The Midwife, is a companion piece of a seemingly slightly lesser mould but it is accurately playful and scopes out a story without having a doctrine or pledge of moral guidance but instead provokes the ‘well what would I have done?’ test of French ingenuity. With regard to screen presence and performance ever present in some portion in domestic French film, it recalls Bardots sexual presence, though here the view is reflected back. Denueve as temptress is easy to imagine and having used her allure with her compelling sexuality striving to reach her inner spiritual self seeking something different than the banal. Béatrice has even altered her name we learn, implying the child looking out to a more attractive future. This is a docile view on sexual capture and how Claire’s father was enraptured by Béatrice. As Julie Newmar said about her onscreen presence with Batman it was about the sexual chemistry and that was a kids comic story, it was a flirtation with life’s expectations. So is this little composition piece has, with the richest ingénue, Catherine Denuevue alongside the more staid Catherine Frot, has elements of a feminine story – not as ‘frothy’ as Madame Bovary – but which similarly tells of a middle aged woman seeking fulfilment outside her marriage and seeing the existing bourgeois in its attire, disheartening and unchallenging of her inner spirit.
These actresses, Queen-pins of French Cinema, have a great time knowingly playing with their own perceptions of womanhood. Catherine (Béatrice) has instinctively from a child perhaps formed two selves. The outer complaint one and the inner one who questions and this extends outwardly towards her desires. Her excessively sensuous charm and strikingly attractive appearance is conflicted with her habitual reserve. The reserve in Catherine (Claire) is meticulously, serene, ordered and her attractiveness is the whole assuredness, with you thinking her devotion to herself as a construct, is material upon some inner spiritual strength, a Mother Superior who isn’t a gad-fly perhaps a product of her childhood and necessity to prove a way forward to bring up children in opposition to her own upbringing. Marguerite (a Florence Foster Jenkins comic role) won Gaul, Catherine Frot a César Award, makes ten! She shows her comedic and serious sides here with ease. There are startling moments in the candor of touch which have you thinking outside expectations. Little accident but superbly crafted acting/directing brought together with more depth for you to absorb.
Two looks at loving.
On relationships, Béatrice who latches on a question from Claire, explains her itinerary of lovers and short lived good times – without delving too much into the longer past – and she is quick to see Claire’s approach to men as having little tact or womanly instinct, something Béatrice has in spades. That is another foible of Béatrice’s – the money thing and taking un-proportioned risk. Going beyond the no risk and healthier tact of Claire’s, non-smoking, no gambling, no-drinking, no-sex drive, no-exertion – only fresh air at her allotment and delivering in most senses, a sterile unpassionate directed professional direction with her unfolding life. The comparison the film provides through the story is revealing to Claire herself. This relationship she takes on, is as an act of courage, suspending the past but learning through the course of things parts of the backstory she had little proper recall of.
Into the picture come..
There are two other characters I haven’t got round to mentioning who play a large part. Though this is like a two handed piece it would be lost without other ingredients to shift and press out realities. The characters brought, are both on Claire’s side of the relationship. One is her son Antoine (Quentin Dolmaire) whose comes along with his girlfriend to see his mother. The young couple both study cadavers and ‘life’ at Medical school. They are quite startled by the emergence of Béatrice and the maternal instincts Claire has brought home again, which have them concerned.
There is also a new character Claire meets at the allotment and a friendly, unexpected relationship develops there, much to Béatrice’s happy surprise. Mr Paul Baron (I think he actually tries referencing a name change!) played terrifically lightly by Olivier Gourmet, looks after his ailing fathers allotment and he also is away a lot. The free spirits now surround Claire! Mr Paul, after a walk up hills, where his breathlessness Martin Provost includes as testimony of their being past his ‘peak’ – no pun intended, Claire is fit from cycling. Here it becomes a place of normality as she surveys the wide horizon from her new viewpoint. All this and no car to search further! This story of late love is itself very touching in a slightly saccharine – not overly – dramatic way which employs some now – things are happening despite everything that preoccupies the time in both Claire’s and Béatrice’s lives which means they have to grapple with an assortment of things as life provides.
Anyone fancy a bit of trepanning?
Overtly conspicuously Gallic.
Cruelly some have described ‘pleasantries’ as treacly. Obviously down to the viewers expectations. There is a scene when Claire eventually takes to the wheel of a car which is a comedy overplaying her incapabilities. It has the added pleasure of taking us on a tour of backstreets of Paris, the posh bits of Place des Invalides? Rue de Grenelle? Rue de Varenne? Embassy nooks, familiar places and a slow journey along the Seine. There is a lot of travelling and a Road trip thrown in which is fun for all concerned, viewer included. With no compromises necessary, French Cinema has the ability to express, emphasise parts of the story with some brio and it is sometimes told with bold strokes. Of simple notes such as Claire’s private ‘regard’ of her looks coming unexpectedly or the Road trip where bonding camaraderie are forged notes. The musical score too is plaintive and melancholic at times and some special ‘homage’ is paid by Béatrice’s reminiscences with Paul over a glass or two. They are not with as some critics would have you believe, done with a blacksmiths hammer but with adroit grace and It is especially true with Catherine Denuenve who is gorgeously indiscreet with her character and fends off nonsense while showing a brilliant vunerablity. There is no acquiescence made on her taking on the role and not delivering a perfected performance down to her tactility with everything she handles. It sits just so as they say. As it should.
Very little of the narrative is flexing of French emotional angst. No ‘fracas’ no ‘terrible consequences’ just clothing references from the extremely fashionable, silk bloused incorrigible at times playacting Béatrice whose life is to hang on. She wears leopard, tiger prints, gold bold jewellery and flirts everywhere with her pursed red rouge lips. Com si com sa. Just to be ungallic.
This is played by two wise and gifted performers alongside a troupe of splendidly observant actors whose place is of plenty of import as we embrace the new relationship formed by the two principles. The course ahead is a rocky one and in md-life the past comes home with a vengeance. For Claire it is a pathway out of her slumber as a single parent and having the difficulty of a making career choice which itself is problematic. Béatrice is opposite and once wild adventure seeker and has now to face a health problem which will maybe topple her from her lust for life. Martin Provost is something of a storyteller who makes films. His way with words and crafting a script have novel forms to it. There are some lines worthy of an August serious novel and in this cinematic form deepen the appeal of watching an ensemble of talents playing out his narrative with wonderful tact and pace. There are some fairly predictable elements however these are merely to catch the watchful viewer and accord some states of normality in parts that appear convenient story elements. Mr Paul for instance turning his potatoes on the allotment. The work situations as they unfold for Claire and her taking a maternal role. It’s likely these are the items some regard as staid, and crisis what crisis? type retorts. Very unkind and not appreciative of the glorious way both play their respective woman profiles and placing nuanced knowing wisdom in the fallow ground of simple concept to make fertile ideas about life’s challenges and how the past appropriates our actions. This is a very entertaining and enveloping watch. The comedy is raw at times and others subtle and subversive. It is a remarkable piece of film making which confirms the status of the author as a wise pair of hands and eyes on the spectral wonder that is French cinema. No devices or contrivances needed. To watch you need go along with the story as a chorus of multiple played notes which you have to take according to your own perceptions.
5 July 2017
On at Queens Film Theatre from Friday 14 July to Wednesday 26 July. No screening on Sunday 23 July 2017.