Both Catherines superb in ‘The Midwife’

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot make a great pair in “The Midwife.” Contributed by Music Box Films
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Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot make a great pair in “The Midwife.” Contributed by Music Box Films

The second career of Catherine Deneuve is one of the ongoing pleasures of Western cinema. Here’s an actress who became famous for being icy and beautiful and a half-century later she is matter-of-fact and down-to-earth, warm and unguarded in a way that makes you think this is what she must have been like all along. This is what she was hiding.

So the later career is not an epilogue or some less interesting other chapter. Old Deneuve is the fruition of young Deneuve. Young Deneuve was the question, but old Deneuve is the answer, and at 73, she keeps opening up and challenging herself, as in “The Midwife,” in which she is paired with France’s other great Catherine, Catherine Frot. The film is about two women coming to terms with a wounding event from long in the past.

Frot plays the title character, Claire, a midwife who works in a hospital unit that is about to be mothballed in favor of something high tech and impersonal. Warm and giving in her work, she is otherwise withdrawn and distant, reluctant to be lured into any emotional contact. And then she gets a phone call from Beatrice (Deneuve), who was the great love of her father’s life, some 30 years before.

There is nothing cliched here, not in the script, the direction or the performances. Beatrice is no wise woman. She is impulsive, needy and something of a mess, someone who has been improvising her way through life and now has nothing to show for it but a few rings and some ribald stories. And Claire is no big stiff.

An American movie would have found it necessary to decide whose way is right or wrong, but this is a French movie, so the concentration is not on moral categories but on the particulars of human behavior. Thus, we get a closely observed, intelligently imagined and realized presentation of contrasting personalities.

Frot is superb (as always), giving us a full sense of Claire’s inner life despite the reticence of the character’s outward manner. The key is the passion that Claire invests in her work. Frot is telling us that this is a woman of feeling, so that when Claire does start to thaw, Frot doesn’t need a Jekyll and Hyde transformation to make it real. It was always there; we saw it — off in a corner, but there.

As for Deneuve, she is a joy, with her funny combination of natural dignity and utter confusion, and surface cynicism that yet loves every moment — the most fun, wise and jolly person in any room she enters, yet capable of the sudden plunge into pained and deep emotion. If you want to fall in love with Catherine Deneuve, don’t start with her youth. Start with her here, in her 70s, and then work your way back.

MOVIE REVIEW

“The Midwife”

Grade: A

Starring Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve. Directed by Martin Provost. In French with English subtitles.

Unrated. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 57 minutes.

Bottom line: An intelligently imagine presentation of contrasting personalities