For reasons I probably shouldn’t think about too deeply, my favorite subcategory in the wide field of coming-of-age stories is “high-strung lady who’s great at her job gets her structured life disrupted by an unlikely friend, but still doesn’t change that much in any perceptible sense, because life is complicated and people are set in their ways.” This is the plot of nearly every Virginia Woolf novel, and a whole host of movies where nothing appears to happen for two hours, but really, everything happens—it’s just that it happens in a way that can’t be easily summarized to impress your Tinder date who doesn’t read much.
Writer/director Martin Provost’s latest entry into this under-appreciated genre is The Midwife, and it helps to know going in that the French term for “midwife” translates literally as “wise woman.” The title’s dual meaning epitomizes the quiet complexity of everything that comes after the title card—a cerebral character study of ladies of a certain age that carries on French filmmakers’ tradition of acknowledging that women over the age of 40 exist. The midwife of the title is Claire (Catherine Frot), a skilled baby-catcher who lives a quiet, dignified life in the suburbs of Paris with a tidy apartment and an adult son. Her structured existence must of course be disrupted, so here comes Béatrice (Deneuve, doing her very best Real Housewives of the Seventh Arrondissement). The Eurotrash former mistress of Claire’s long-dead father, Béatrice shows up, Royal Tenenbaum-like, to announce she has brain cancer and needs help, but also that she has no intention of giving up either red meat or gambling. (That Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve are like the Meryl Streeps of French cinema makes their opposition all the more enjoyable.)
What follows is a smart, mordant portrait of aging and loss. That sounds sad, but it’s actually delightful to watch two veteran actresses take on these complicated roles. Not much happens—but under the surface, everything does, and Frot and Deneuve make it impossible to miss.