A synopsis of The Midwife reads like the standard stuff of melodrama. Claire (Catherine Frot) is an accomplished 49-year-old sage-femme (midwife) at a small clinic slated to close because it is not profitable. A succession of scenes where Claire helps deliver babies in a variety of circumstances show her to be a woman of compassion and skill, cool under fire, the sort of person a mother would want in the room. Away from the clinic she is a taciturn, tightly wound, no-nonsense type whose life revolves around her work and a small garden plot she tends in her free time. She shares a no-frills apartment in a Paris suburb with her son, a medical student who wants to be a surgeon. Though she lives paycheck to paycheck and will soon be out of a job, she resists joining her colleagues who are lining up positions at a big, modern hospital that to Claire's mind is little more than an assembly-line operation concerned only with efficiency and profit.
No sooner have we gotten the bare bones of Claire's story than she receives a phone call from a woman who introduces herself as Béatrice Sobolewski (Catherine Deneuve). The woman is trying to contact Antoine Breton and wonders if Claire is his daughter, as indeed she is, of course. The backstory in brief in that Antoine was a champion swimmer, an Olympian, and Béatrice his mistress until she left disappeared without a word when Claire was thirteen or fourteen. What Béatrice does not know until Claire reveals it is that Antoine killed himself shortly after she left.
Béatrice is elegant, free-spirited, some might say frivolous, daughter of a poor concierge who passed herself off as a Hungarian princess with Russian blood. She has fallen on hard times, jewelry pawned, broke except when her luck holds at an illicit poker game in a smoky back room where she is a regular and by the bye the only woman present. And she has a brain tumor. And nowhere to turn but to Claire.
More complications ensue. What melodrama would be complete without a romantic angle? Claire meets Paul (Olivier Gourmet), son of the old man who owns the adjacent garden plot, a long-distance, international truck driver who likes the sense of freedom his job gives him. Paul is quiet, unassuming, and gentle, not particularly sophisticated by outward appearance but he knows a good wine, so maybe not so unsophisticated as class bias might presume. Claire is alone, her past a blank, her present too complicated to have time for a relationship. What follows between them may be predictable, but it plays out sweetly and with a nice touch altogether true to life.
So what makes The Midwife a nice little film when it could have been less? A gritty realism has something to do with it—and not just scenes with babies being pulled from wombs that establish a certain tone as well as a sense of Claire's personality and character. Neither woman is always likable; each is vulnerable. Béatrice is self-centered, demanding, and manipulative. Claire is rigid, stubborn, and prone to snap at those close to her, though never in her role as sage-femme, where she is invariably calm and reassuring. Against her inclination Claire is pulled into taking care of Béatrice as her better self wins out over the hurt she still harbors from a wrong done three decades ago. The story is conveyed with understated humor and emotional restraint that make the characters sympathetic without glossing over less attractive qualities, as when anxiety and fear show through Béatrice's bluster or when Claire responds to Paul's tentative overtures with hesitance and uncertainty.
Then there are the compelling performances by Deneuve, Frot, and Gourmet. The film's website bills Deneuve and Frot as two of French cinema's biggest stars. Catherine Frot is new to me. She is a find whose presence alone would be reason to check out a film.