Claire Breton (Catherine Frot) is a French midwife who works in a clinic that is soon to close due to lack of funds and support from the authorities, for more advanced techniques are being brought in to replace the old ways in which the middle-aged Claire was schooled. However, she is very good at her job, and has such a benevolent reputation that young women seek her out to deliver their babies, yet when someone rather older seeks her out she is not sure how to react. This is because she has been contacted by Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve), who she has a personal connection with despite having not seen her since she was a lot younger: Beatrice was the woman who ran off with her father.
The two Catherines graced this drama from writer and director Martin Provost, a couple of celebrated Gallic acting talents of different generations, and the overall reception indicated they were far from wasted here. Though the plot may have seemed slight to some opinions, this was more a character study that regarded one woman past the halfway point in her life meeting up with one who is most likely reaching the end of hers, as Beatrice abruptly announces in the lunch she has invited Claire to that she has a brain tumour that may well kill her. In light of what the older woman did to her family, Claire is understandably having mixed feelings about this sudden revelation.
The sticking point was not so much that Beatrice broke up the marriage of Claire's parents, but more that her beloved father, a swimming champion, committed suicide when his mistress went on to leave him, something Beatrice had no knowledge of. The question we are then asked is, can we have any sympathy with someone who, though they are very ill, clearly laid waste to another person's life through their thoughtless actions, and Deneuve had a tricky balancing act to pull off in order to make her character in any way sympathetic. What she did was not play was Beatrice as a monster, but allowed us to see her humanity when we came to accept she had no real grasp of what she was doing.
Despite being the guilty party, Beatrice is one of those people who sail through life causing all sorts of disruptions yet retaining a curious innocence, as if nothing she had done to others had really sunk in. Certainly, she cries when she learns her ex-lover ended his own life, but there was a selfishness about her that made even this incident less about him or his family and more about her; well, maybe not selfishness, maybe a self-centred quality that expects everyone else to march to the beat of her drum and she has such a bright, funloving personality that more often than not they do. To say Deneuve embodied these contradictions in both her acting and the audience response to Beatrice was wholly accurate, it was a masterful reading of what was a shallow individual, and that we liked her was thanks to her canny charisma.
This was not a one-woman show, and Frot more than proved a match for her co-star, as Claire was more the protagonist than Beatrice was. For her part, there was a mood to her scenes that demonstrated how she was becoming obsolete, so her career was dying just as surely as this unwelcome soul in her existence was, and there were light musings on what to do if the world doesn't need you anymore. Do you make yourself relevant, or will there be those who do that for you? In Claire's case, she is surprised to be romanced by the son of the elderly man who tends to the allotment next to hers, a truck driver named Paul (Olivier Gourmet) who is attracted to her strength of character when to others outside of her compassionate work she could seem frosty. We have seen her worth, and in a way through her meetings with Beatrice we see the older woman's worth as well. The two actresses were an ideal complement to one another: if you were attracted to this when you heard they were joining forces, there's a good chance this would strongly appeal. Plus Deneuve drives a lorry in it while dressed to the nines. Music by Grégoire Hetzel.
[Aka: La Sage-Femme. Curzon's DVD has the trailer as an extra.]