THE MIDWIFE (12A) 2017 France, written and directed by Martin Provost, with Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot.
This is a pretty tricky film to write about. Its importance is maybe a little camouflaged beneath its apparent stylistic simplicity. Let me try and explain.
We live in interesting times. Nurses are paid so badly they are resorting to food banks. A nurse who challenges Theresa May, the Prime Minister, during a pre-election Question Time regarding this state of affairs is given the brush off. It’s twenty years since the first Harry Potter book. Financial inequality and wage growth are at levels last seen who knows when - Queen Victoria, Louis the Sixteenth?
Harry Potter? Say what? Actually, I enjoyed reading Harry Potter. Particularly for the inventiveness and humour, but also for the clever, over-arching metaphor, the weird mystery of school. In my experience you go into school expecting one thing and get something else altogether. (My boarding school experience in Cairns in Northern Queensland bore no resemblance to Hogwarts I have to stress.) But of the many unhappy memories (ah well), there is one I just can’t get beyond, that trumps all others - the memory of seeing the boys (it was all boys) who, at the beginning of the second year, had been streamed into the bottom class, the one for the dunces, seeing the expression of sadness on their faces as they sat at their desks. They knew what was coming, what life had in store for them. I remember being shocked, being overtaken with anxiety, it could have been me. These were boys who I’d been friends with only a few weeks before, but now there was no more friendship. The barrier was up. Our paths diverged.
Another detour, sorry. Newspapers (and to an extent) bookshops, are filled with opinion and comment regarding the current upheavals - what does it all mean? Rich vs poor? Somewheres vs Anywheres? Conservative vs Socialist? Austerity vs investment? And where is the voice of art, of artists? Generally, hard to find. What little there is kind of adheres to the party line - focus on how people feel. Being badly treated by the Job Centre? How does it feel? Haven’t got any money? How does it feel? Otherwise artists seem to be concentrating on keeping their heads down and their Arts Council grants intact. Unfair?
The Midwife attempts something rather different. On the Internet Movie Datebase (imdb) there is an interesting piece of trivia - as the film included scenes of childbirth and such scenes were against French law, the film was partly shot in Belgium, where you could film babies being born. The excellent Catherine Frot actually delivered five real babies during filming. (Don’t worry, it’s very tastefully done. That said, when watching the film, the babies are, to say the least, surprising.)
What I’m trying to get at is that the film has some of the stylistic elements of documentary, even though we are never in doubt that we are watching a drama. But what kind of drama?
I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to go back to the boys at school. The streaming had one very specific purpose. It wasn’t really about academic prowess, that was just the excuse. It was about whether or not you could manage as an individual, to operate as a lone agent, or whether your talent lay in collaboration, connecting with others in a meaningful and productive way. Individual? Success, riches, you were special. Collaborative? Second class, poverty, struggle, disdain. As the years went by, those who had a talent for individuality were spread thinner and thinner on the greasy pole. Those at the bottom stayed clumped together, a mass of non-achievement.
The more individual you were capable of being (I hesitate to say sociopathic) the more successful you became. Once sorted you were ready for what came next: university and on, up, up and away. Or not. Individual vs what? Its opposite.
Just as in Harry Potter, the evil Voldemort is known as ‘he-who-cannot-be-named’, the arts industry cannot give voice to the fact that it supports, celebrates, props up, underpins the individual at the expense of its opposite. The arts, for all its moral certainties, its arrogance, is basically on the side of the Hard Right, though it will never, ever admit such a thing to itself.
My father throughout my school years, and though we had a farm, worked as a labourer at a sawmill. I had an instinctive connection with those in that bottom class which I have never really been able to shake. God knows I’ve tried, to my shame. As such the arts have never really presented a face to me that I can recognise, with which I feel that same kind of kindred spirit.
Until this film. I’m not saying that the movie is about the down and out. Far from it. Catherine Frot is a very efficient, clearly successful and competent midwife. Catherine Deneuve is a wild-child, notwithstanding her age, funny and infuriating, with a very large appetite for life. As effective as Claire (Catherine Frot’s character) is at managing the mothers in their moments (or longer) of crisis, she isn’t able to navigate a way through a difficult point in her own life.
Cue Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve) her one-time step-mother, a surprising and not altogether welcome apparition, having abandoned the then teenage girl thirty years earlier. The women become midwives to each other, their connection genuine, never sentimental, not internal, not about feeling but about something ultimately larger than themselves.
We are accustomed to looking at drama, whether on stage or screen, a particular way. The settings, costumes, the mis-en-scene is usually in some way indicative of, or a metaphor for, the characters’ inner lives. This has seeped into documentary, with the setting tending to telegraph in shorthand how we should view the people depicted.
But when a film eschews inner life in favour of character interaction, genuinely showing the ways that the characters have affected each other, that the drama is external, not internal, the usual triggers of setting etc, seem not to be apposite, not to send the right messages. What’s odd about watching this film is that there isn’t a visual language for characters who genuinely connect with each other, who inspire real change in someone else. The visual language is all about inner life, not external life.
As I said, these characters have little in common with those boys I talked about earlier, apart from the fact that they have an ability, a talent, for genuine, external connection. And there is no accepted artistic language to express this. Artistic expression has been hijacked by the inner life, by individual genius, by those in the top classes, by the successful and the rich. Those who live the life external are invisible.
This is a film which is unequivocally about character interaction, not the characters’ inner lives. It is a very exciting and thought provoking achievement.