Catherine Deneuve,left, and Catherine Frot in The Midwife (Music Box Films)

If humanity is only a breakthrough or two away from discovering the key to immortality, then may I nominate Catherine Deneuve as the number one recipient of the gift of eternal life when that day comes? That way we can look forward to more fabulous performances like the one she delivers in The Midwife, a loving, funny, and sophisticated portrayal of a high-living woman in desperate trouble. The Midwife is not a great film, but Deneuve’s life-force turn and a more low-key outing from co-star Catherine Frot make it enjoyably watchable.

The movie initially centers not around Béatrice Sobolewski (Deneuve) but on Claire (Frot), the sage-femme of the title. An overworked goody-two-shoes teetotaler and vegetarian, Claire only comes fully alive in the delivery room. When assisting a childbirth, she glows with competence, tenderness, and a sense of being fully in her element. She’s leading a virtuous but mostly boring existence set on a perpetual low boil of discontent.

Until a hurricane comes into her life, that is, in the form of Deneuve’s Béatrice. Béatrice seduced Claire’s father years ago, broke up his marriage, and then ran away from her lover and little Claire. In contrast to the monastic midwife, Béatrice is a brazen liar and mooch who lives to gamble large sums of money, attract men’s admiring gazes, and devour the meatiest entrecôte, washed down with the finest Bordeaux (all on credit, of course). Her unwelcome outreach to Claire vibrates with a dark pathos: Béatrice is ill with terminal cancer.

Claire initially resists the dying woman’s overtures, but her basic decency forces her to help Béatrice, and she finds herself dropping off checks to a seedy loan shark for one of the older woman’s get-rich-quick schemes. The prickly rapport between the two grows slowly, giving Béatrice some badly needed breathing room and affection. As for Claire, it’s not long before Béatrice’s naughty influences get her in touch with her own wild child. Easing her expectations on her young son and striking up an affair with a blue-collar gardener propel Claire to a looser, happier place.

The Midwife’s harping on the differences between its two main characters can feel repetitive, and Claire’s gradual shedding of her inhibitions play out predictably. Nevertheless, Deneuve’s performance saunters away with the movie, though. Gaudily dressed but stately in bearing, shameless but anchored by an inner dignity, Béatrice faces her troubles with bravado even as her predicament grows more desperate. Deneuve finds the knowing shades of this raffish character and devilishly plays up her comic side—a scene of Béatrice making a cockamamie attempt to rob a suburban jewelry store is simply priceless. Effortlessly drawing on deep human wisdom, this is acting at a titanic level, and it makes a mid-level Midwife memorable.

Written and Directed by Martin Provost
Released by Music Box Films
French with English subtitles
France. 117 min. Not rated
With Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourmet, and Quentin Dolmaire