Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Midwife

                                        “Will you take me as I am?”
                                                                                                      Joni Mitchell, “California”
                                                                                              (on the 1971 Blue album)

                                                       Review by Ken Burke
                                                     The Midwife (Martin Provost)
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): The titular birthing-specialist of this pleasantly-watchable-film is facing 3 very challenging situations in her current life: her young-adult-medical-student-son wants to abandon that lucrative career to instead follow in his mother’s profession (she’s not all that supportive); her own career’s at a crossroads because her patient-oriented-clinic’s about to be closed by a medical conglomerate (she has no interest in working in their mega-hospital); most importantly she’s in a personal crisis when her father’s hedonistic ex-lover shows up after 30 years hoping for reattachment to the family not yet knowing Dad’s dead.  (Not a spoiler, clearly noted in the trailer; take a look for yourself.)  Our stern, reclusive midwife’s confounded and perplexed by these situations—especially the personality contrast with the older, flighty woman who wants to act like her mother—even as a male friend starts showing a strong interest in this woman who's denied herself sensual pleasures for years.  I highly recommend The Midwife if you can find it (playing in only a few domestic theaters at present) and aren’t put off by reading French subtitles.

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐  OK, continue on if you like.
What Happens: Claire Breton (Catherine Frot) is a middle-aged midwife who’s worked for years in an independent maternity clinic about to be shut down by a medical corporation with an attitude toward childbirth sounding suspiciously like an automobile-assembly-line, a place where she has no intention of working (unlike some of her colleagues she refuses to compromise her principles).  She’s also confounded by her young-adult-son, Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), a medical student who didn’t do too well on his recent exams, is moving away from home, has decided to drop out of med school to pursue a midwife career (Mom’s not confortable with that decision, nor is she fully resigned to his girlfriend, Lucie [Pauline Parigot], being 3 months pregnant).  All of this is minimized, though, by the sudden reappearance after 30 years of Béatrice Sobolewski (Catherine Deneuve), the ex-lover of her father (Antoine Breton, shown in photos but no actor identification) who calls Claire one day wanting to reconnect, not yet realizing Antoine committed suicide shortly after Béatrice left him (he was a champion swimmer, but after he retired he became too sedate for her more flamboyant lifestyle).  No surprise, the reunion doesn't go too splendidly for either of them.

 Given this is a French film (maybe I should highlight that as a subtitle spoiler alert for those who'd rather listen to dialogue than read it), we soon understand Claire essentially detests Béatrice not only because of her father’s death but also because she left him, the daughter preferring to have preserved Dad’s presence until he reached old age despite the accepted infidelity toward his family (Claire knows he married her mother because she was pregnant).  Basically, Béatrice reappears because she’s dying of brain cancer, has no one else to turn to for solace (long-term-relationships aren’t viable for her) even though Claire’s also disdainful of her would-be-mother’s (again, see the trailer) insistence on smoking, red wine, and red meat despite her deteriorating physical condition.

 Béatrice also has financial problems in that her income (or outgo, depending on the circumstances) is dependent on her luck at a local card parlor, although she does has some expensive jewelry that she either attempts to hock or give to Claire (but then she has to borrow 5,000 Euros which she finally pays back).  Despite their difficulties, though, Claire feels required to take Béatrice in after a not-fully-successful brain operation revealing the tumor to be larger than originally diagnosed, even as the flat-sharing causes conflicts with the long-needed-emerging-romance Claire’s beginning with gardening-neighbor/truck-driver Paul Baron (Olivier Gourmet), so their budding sex life’s easier to consummate in the garden’s shack due to Béatrice’s presence at home (in the Paris suburbs, where life’s too tame for this supposed “Hungarian princess with Russian blood”—a full fabrication she now admits; she grew up poor then changed her name along with her heritage), although Paul takes them for a ride in his truck with Béatrice having a fun time behind the wheel for awhile.  Ultimately, this at-times-charming-intruder—who claims Claire as her daughter while in the hospital after her operation, with no clarification offered by the newly-minted-“child”—sees, as her condition deteriorates, rigid Claire’s beginning to soften considerably while she grows closer to Paul.  The 2 women begin to truly bond as well, particularly while looking at old slides of Antoine, interrupted by a surprise visit from Simon which allows us to see the striking resemblance between these generations of Breton men.  Soon after, Béatrice simply slips away one night leaving a farewell note.

  ⇒A bit later, as Claire and Paul are once again at their gardens, awaiting a visit from Simon and Lucie (the location’s in the countryside, considerably away from Claire’s flat—she gets there by bicycle, just as she dutifully avoids meat and alcohol, at least until she loosens up on the latter with Paul, as she’s now willing to allow herself to be “emotional” with him—right by a river, possibly the Seine, where Simon likes to take long dips as he follows in his grandfather’s passion), Claire finds a short note from Béatrice (along with a ring she’d previously offered to Claire, one given to her by Antoine) just as Paul sees his rowboat’s almost sunken, leaving us with the assumption Béatrice drowned herself to allow Claire and Paul’s connection to grow without her further interference.⇐

So What? I’ve been aware of Deneuve’s iconic-international-cinematic reputation for decades (beginning for me with the vastly-different-viewing-experiences offered to us by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [Jacques Demy, 1964] and Repulsion [Roman Polanski, 1965]; you can find our review of her work in On My Way [Emmanuelle Bercot, 2013] in our April 10, 2014 posting*) but I’m only vaguely knowledgeable about co-star Frot (despite her equally-distinguished-career, I’ve seen her only in Marguerite [Xavier Giannoli, 2015; review in our April 7, 2016 posting], a fictional account of an impossibly-horrible-amateur-opera-singer [winning for Frot the Best Actress César {French equivalent of the Oscar}], a woman also celebrated in the biopic Florence Foster Jenkins [Stephen Frears, 2016; review in our August 31, 2016 posting] starring another superb actor, Meryl Streep), so it was a terrific pleasure for me to see these magnificent Frenchwomen in harmony, bringing life to their contrasting roles of reserved-principled-professional vs. hedonistic-attempted-reconciler.  

*I ask your indulgence with this earlier posting, suffering from lousy layout; I’m aware I still often write with run-on-sentences (like my waistline, I’m working on it)—a tendency from my academic days when I’d digress on tangents so often I had to put lecture notes in course readers to provide the basis for testing, realizing I had no record of what I’d said in those spontaneous asides (although I realized I’d just learned something I didn’t know when I began speaking; I just hope I’ve held onto those insights)—but I’ve tried to get better with more content breaks and photos to eliminate run-on-paragraphs since 2016.  When I make reference to older reviews, forcing a revisit to those design disasters, I can only take solace in the hopes that someday they’ll be interpreted as early-career-creative-flourishes prior to my grand days of legendary-critical-fame—or probably not.

You may have also noticed I'm now using only extra-large-format-photos (repetitive as these available ones are), eliminating the need to precisely align ("justify") columns of text next to smaller images as I've previously done.  This is purely for personal-sanity-preservation as it's reduced my posting time almost by half in not having to struggle all night against the constraints of Blogspot software.  Any comments on this and/or the additional spoiler alerts would be most appreciated.

 However, some screen-presence-recognition’s also due to the mothers giving birth and their newborns because director Provost (according to the press notes) wanted these baby-emergences to be authentic rather than the simulated-for-fictional-cinematic-purposes required by law in France (and the U.S.), so he did those scenes in Belgium, recruiting 6 pregnant women who allowed him, Frot (who underwent midwife training so she could take the lead in the procedures, although there were actual midwives there too), and a small crew into the delivery rooms to witness the actual processes of the babies’ births, footage incorporated into the flow of the film’s final edit.  All of this meticulous adherence to the actuality of the midwife’s skill—freeing up the doctors for the instances where they’re most needed, as in the scene where one’s called in to untangle a baby’s umbilical cord choking the endangered child—further grounds this film in its representation of authentic human situations and emotions, allowing all of these actors to fully inhabit a screen world that consistently feels a reflection of our own.  (Provost says he shot 6 deliveries—“When Catherine Frot brings her first baby into the world, never have I wept so hard”—but I counted only 4 shown on screen, ⇒although I’m not sure if the cesarean birth resulting in that baby’s death was actual or not; he doesn’t mention it so I’ll just have to hope this was fictionally-added for dramatic impact.⇐)

 Given that I have access to this film’s press notes for a change, I’ll avail myself of the opportunity to share what some of the principal contributors to this work say about their intentions and characters.  Provost, noting he was saved at birth himself by a midwife who gave her blood for an immediate, necessary transfusion (an event which becomes an aspect of his script, late in the film, when Claire delivers a baby only to be shocked when the mother reveals Claire had offered such an extraordinary act of blood-donation when this woman was born with life-threatening-complications some 20 years ago) so he wanted to create a story honoring the work of these dedicated medical professionals, often neglected in wrongful assumptions about doctors being the only ones responsible for helping humans successfully come into being.  Thus, he’s fashioned Claire, “A woman with integrity who knows what her experience is worth. Money is not her priority even if unemployment is a cause for concern. She would rather sell her apartment than contribute to the policy of setting targets. She acts with the same conviction in her personal life: her son has left home, she has no partner, but she remains upright, almost stiff-necked.  The eruption of Béatrice into her life will change everything,” as shown in his focus on the nature of freedom (a key aspect of my Musical Metaphor noted in the next section below); he explains: “Freedom does not reside in the absence of boundaries or rules as Béatrice appears to think […] There could be nothing more vulnerable than a baby who has just been born or an elderly person who is going to die.”
 In presenting this vulnerability of his characters—all of whom are struggling for acceptance in some manner—Provost constructs a film allowed to meander at times, especially with short scenes of Claire in her clinic that aren’t so much about moving the story along as just giving us additional insights into the caring woman she is on the job, as opposed to the guarded, anger-simmering person that defines her home life.  About her character, Catherine Frot says: “Her everyday life is all the more disrupted as Claire is a very disciplined woman, she has put her life on hold to better dedicate herself to others, with incredible kindness and devotion. Béatrice’s reappearance makes her question her way of living […] Claire is not a follower. She is not the kind to betray her principles at the first hurdle. She is very committed in the sense that she has unequivocal and straightforward views, notably with respect to her profession. She disagrees with work targets, she rejects the ‘baby factories’. She [...] is driven.”  On Béatrice, Catherine Deneuve offers this apt description: “She is a woman who has lived intensely and lightly in equal proportions. She is at once very generous and very selfish. She loves gambling, but she is destitute, which does not prevent her from having flair and elegance. She lives from day to day without planning ahead, moreover she would be incapable of doing so. She moves along by groping in the dark, relying one day on one person, the next on another […] a joyful adventurer. If she figures out how to make things around her suit her, it is not with the intention of harming others, but rather so she can live a better life.”
Bottom Line Final Comments: One of the few perks of writing for this blog (along with the pleasure of the creative process itself and the occasional notation from a reader that there was something useful and/or enjoyable about the review) is that as an unpaid-labor-of-love (without the benefit of many free press screenings or even meager remuneration from ads, thanks to some indecipherable Google policies) I only write about what I’ve chosen to see, unlike those folks who do this for a living with some responsibility to see just about everything in release, so when I find myself with minimal interest in the box-office-impacters such as The Emoji Movie (Tony Leondis), Girls Trip (Malcolm D. Lee), Atomic Blonde (David Leitch), Despicable Me 3 (Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda), or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson), I just ignore them to focus on something with more substance (including my decision last Sunday to skip any further screenings in favor of going to a local baseball game*).  However, I’m lucky enough to (be able to afford to) live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place supporting a couple of the mere 28 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters where The Midwife’s playing after 2 weeks in release (taking in a paltry $113,210 thus far—with little of that coming from our screening where about 6 others joined me and my wife, Nina—so I don’t assume many of you will even be able to find this film except for some form of video availability).  Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to see, a fine showcase of great acting illustrating a much-more-nuanced-approach to life’s complexities than most mainstream movies can dare to examine, and a tribute to a final decision that can’t fully atone for previous behavior but certainly shows a generosity of spirit warming the lives of both oppositional-protagonists (a term I just made up to indicate that, at least in retrospect, neither of these women would truly be considered an antagonist, despite how Claire might argue with me concerning the bulk of her difficult plot events).
*I got my money’s worth, as my beloved Oakland A’s won in the bottom of the 12th inning (instead of the usual 9, for those of you not invested in this sport) with a walk-off home run, while I was consuming a (literal) helmet-full of nachos washed down with a large beer in honor of the culinary tastes of the late A’s radio announcer, Bill King, inducted the day before into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY, an honor to which he'd respond with a signature phrase, "Holy Toledo!"

 The critical consensus generally agrees with me (how insightful of them) with 86% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a 66% average score at the usually-less-generous-Metacritic (more details in the links to this film just below; however, the former’s based on just 43 reviews, the latter on a mere 20—a small accounting for both sites—so you might want to check back with them later to see if anything’s changed), but The Midwife is likely more of a critic’s film anyway, unless you prefer plausible conflicts of low-key-human-drama to spectacular explosions, screeching car chases, gunfights, martial arts, and dialogue that doesn’t need to be translated.  I easily found the multi-dimensional-characters with their often-unpredictable-responses to the situations they’ve created for themselves to be a rewarding investment of a couple of hours, even if the ending might be considered a bit melodramatic.  Yet, Béatrice’s apparent suicide for the benefit of Claire’s now-blossoming-life isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem (she’s dying of brain cancer, after all) when I think back a few years to my own mother’s essential-suicide-choice of starvation under the supervision of a hospice program to finally terminate her intense, body-wide pain but with my awareness she’d mentioned a few months earlier how her remaining savings would be useful for some financial choices Nina and I were making; she never brought it up again, but I can’t help thinking of that comment, especially when she made her decision on the spot when I returned to Texas for what turned out to be my last visit.  (I think her doctor also knew what she wanted, as he just calmly asked her if she “wanted to die,” to which she said “Yes.”)⇐  Béatrice used another strategy entirely yet she achieved somewhat similar results, for the future good of her own “child.”

 To bring these comments to closure, I’ll offer my standard trope of a Musical Metaphor to sum it all up but from the perspective of an aural artform, with this review’s choice being Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” (originally on his 1969 Songs from a Room album) but for this instance I’ll use a 1976 performance by Judy Collins at in respect for the equally-powerful-performances of these lead women in The Midwife (although Collins was the first singer to release a version of Cohen’s song, on her 1968 Who Knows Where the Time Goes album).  The lyrics about “I have tried in my way to be free [… yet] Like a baby, stillborn, Like a beast with his horn I have torn everyone who reached out for me” clearly reflect Béatrice’s attitude—now laced with repentance—toward life, even as she sees herself toward Claire as “if I have been untrue I hope you know it was never to you,” although Claire has her own reasons to see her pseudo-“mother” as nothing more than “a drunk in a midnight choir.”  But, for most of this story Claire reacts like “a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch [… who says] “You must not ask for so much,” whereas Béatrice is the “pretty woman leaning in her darkened door [… who cries out] “Hey, why not ask for more?”  If you’re the one asking for more, that is to hear now-departed-Leonard offer his own take on this lovely-forgiveness-meditation, here’s a late-career performance from London’s O2 Arena, September 15, 2013 to help with your own self-evaluations until next we meet.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are just too many to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 forward this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

Here’s more information about The Midwife:

Sorry, but I could find nothing else in the way of interviews or press conferences about this film although there are ample “opportunities” to see it full-length via the Internet if you care to explore such possibly-questionable-options which might have copyright problems I'd prefer to avoid.

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*

*Please note that YouTube keeps taking down various versions of this majestic Eagles performance at their 1998 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so I keep putting in newer links (of the same damn material) to retrieve it; this “Hotel California” link was active when I did this posting but the song won’t be available in all of our previous ones done before 7/6/2017.  Sorry, but there are too many postings to go back and re-link every one.  The corporate overlords triumph again.

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 39,931; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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