French writer-director Martin Provost's "The Midwife" is a story about two very different women: Claire (Catherine Frot), a tense and responsible person who delivers babies at a small hospital, and Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve), a free-spirited and highly irresponsible gambler who lives by her wits. Their exact relationship to each other is difficult to understand, and that's only one of the problems with this movie.
"The Midwife" begins with some plodding and un-promising scenes at the hospital with Claire, but the film is briefly energized when Deneuve's Béatrice comes crashing back into Claire's life. (Béatrice had some kind of relationship with Claire's father.) Wearing a slightly tacky orange-and-green robe, Béatrice keeps up a steady stream of very peppy talk and announces, "I have cancer!" as if she were relaying a juicy piece of gossip about herself.
While having lunch with Béatrice at a restaurant, Claire relates that her father committed suicide, and Béatrice receives this information as if she is being physically attacked. Deneuve plays this moment of breakdown in an extraordinarily exposed and immediate way. A great beauty and a great star, Deneuve can also be a great actress when a part calls upon all of her resources and taps into the whirlwind of emotion just below her fabled surface.
"I don't care if I die; I lived the life I wanted!" Béatrice cries convincingly, but she also seems to be in a panic. When Claire tells her to stay away from red meat, Béatrice says, "I believe in the power of pleasure." (This belief also includes a devotion to elegantly long cigarettes.)
Béatrice is the sort of larger-than-life role that a movie diva like Deneuve can have some fun with, and Provost ("Séraphine") has provided her with some amusing lines of dialogue. But the conflict between Claire and Béatrice feels contrived. And Claire is a far less interesting character than Béatrice, yet we spend an inordinate amount of time with her alone.
The midsection of "The Midwife" is mainly devoted to confrontation scenes between Claire and Béatrice where they reveal things about their shared past, but this past is fatally unclear. Was Béatrice her stepmother? Her mother? At a certain point, Claire starts referring to Béatrice as her mother, but then late in the film she very briefly starts to talk about her actual mother. The press notes state that Béatrice was the mistress of Claire's father, but that certainly doesn't come across on screen.
The bothersome and irritating thing about the way "The Midwife" is written is that we keep hearing detail after detail and story after story about the shared history between Claire and Béatrice, but we never get a solid idea of what that history was. This narrative murkiness could have been taken care of with one or two lines of dialogue in their first scene together, and surely this isn't too much to ask since almost all of their other dialogue is exposition of one sort of another.
They have not seen each other in 30 years, yet Béatrice comes running to Claire because she is ill and afraid, and we never know why she chooses Claire. How long was Béatrice the mistress of Claire's father? Were she and Claire close at that time? At one point Béatrice says that she has no friends, and yet we see her flirting with every man she meets and holding court at a poker table like a card-game queen bee.
"The Midwife" might have worked if Provost had cut most of Claire's scenes at the hospital and just focused on fleshing out her relationship to Beatrice. If he had done that, Provost might have wound up with a good weepie with comic undertones, or maybe an outright screwball comedy where Béatrice gets Claire to loosen up.
There's one promising comic scene in the last third where Béatrice convinces Claire to sign over some money to an older woman who looks very attractively depraved. "You're pretty when you're naughty!" Béatrice cries. "But that raincoat has got to go." The way they laugh together here establishes some chemistry between these women, but it does not lead anywhere.
In a long and very distinguished career, Deneuve has made her classics and her "definitely of interest" films, and she has also stuffed her résumé with films like "The Midwife" that are distinguished only by her star presence. She is ready and willing to be magnificent in many different emotional registers, but she has had trouble finding contemporary French directors who can make movies that are up to her high standard.
Deneuve has that one great scene in the restaurant in "The Midwife" and several others that display her skill, but this is not enough to save this particular picture from its shortcomings.