Seeing a film like Martin Provost’s The Midwife, starring two of the greatest actresses in France today, Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot, is a thrill that you should definitely not pass up. The fact that the film is focused on two women “d’une certaine age,” as they say in France, is even more of a rare and delightful treat. Provost wrote the two lead roles specifically with Deneuve and Frot in mind and they are both at the very top of their game here. Catherine Frot plays Claire, a talented but tightly wound midwife and single mother who is about to lose her longtime job at a small maternity clinic which is being subsumed by a huge hospital. As Claire is grappling with the changes in her life and whether she should consider taking a position at the hospital, Catherine Deneuve’s Béatrice breezes into town — the one-time mistress of Claire’s deceased father who abandoned the family years ago and is now looking for redemption. Though polar opposites in almost every way, the two women slowly come to rely on each other to cope with the unusual circumstances that bring them together.
Honestly, you will rarely see better acting on the screen, I was deeply moved throughout the film and thrilled to get the chance to talk to Catherine Frot by phone. The actress doesn’t speak English so I dusted off my college French and made my way through a brief chat with one of France’s best. Frot won a César award for the fabulous 2015 film Marguerite and I had recently watched her incredible performance in Haute Cuisine where she played Hortense Laborie in the story of the first female private chef of a French president. With her powerful portrayal of Hortense still on my mind, I asked her if she saw any similarities between Hortense and Claire.
Catherine Frot: Oh, that’s an interesting question. My first thought is to say no, not really, but if I think about it for a minute, there’s a certain kind of basic simplicity both women have. These are two women who are not concerned with being “popular” in the traditional sense and they’re both extremely serious about their chosen professions. So yes, I guess I can see some connections between the two!
Danny Miller: The dynamic between you and Catherine Deneuve in this film is just stunning — truly a joy to behold. Had you ever worked together before?
No! I may have seen her at events here and there over the years, but I didn’t know her and we had never worked together. But it was an amazing experience. We have VERY different styles of working, I have to say, just completely different ways of approaching a role, and yet we respect each other so much I thought we were great partners on this film.
Interesting — I can see those differences working really well considering you could say the same thing about Claire and Béatrice and their very different ways of looking at life and the world.
And Martin Provost specifically wrote these parts for you two?
Yes. He told me he had this strange dream where I was delivering a baby right in front of him. It stayed in his mind and I think that’s why he wanted me for this part — and also why he wanted me to truly be delivering babies in this film!
What do you mean? Those were actual births we were seeing on the screen?
Yes! They were completely real, it was amazing. I think four or five different deliveries. There was always an actual midwife standing right next to me, of course, but they filmed it in such a way that you only see me. I’m not sure that’s ever been done that way before. And so the babies you see in the movie have truly just been born!
Wow. The transformation of Claire over the course of the film was so moving, I was often in tears. I imagine that’s both rewarding and challenging to play — making sure the character’s changes seem realistic and not just for the sake of a movie.
Yes, it was a challenge. But, you know, for some reason I always find myself playing these characters who undergo these enormous changes. People who, at the beginning of the film, are closed off, their lives have become rather small, they’ve somehow shut down because of things that have happened to them in their lives. And then, thanks to events that we see unfold, they are somehow liberated and open up. I love playing this kind of progression!
Did you have a lot of discussions on set with Martin to make sure Claire’s changes came across believably?
Yes, certainly, but you know, I understood Claire — her issues with her son, with her family, with Béatrice who was such a free spirit. I got her and it wasn’t that hard for me to put myself in her shoes and find those keys for her to finally broaden her horizons. I think everyone at some point in their lives goes through some kind of period where they’re a bit closed off from the world, and they have to find a way to crawl out of that and almost become a different person. I’ve definitely felt that in my own life and I love playing those kinds of characters. It’s the human experience!
There were moments in the film where I wanted to yell at Claire to take the new job at the hospital, I could see her being so useful there. Did you always get why she was so reluctant to do so?
Ah, well, Claire had a very specific point of view about the role of midwives in society — she was a true humanist, she believed her profession needed to be performed in a certain way to help women the most, and she just could not get behind these changes that corporatized her profession and made it more like a factory. She just couldn’t do it. She thought about it, but her passion for her job just wouldn’t let her sacrifice what she really believed in.
I have to say how fantastic it was to see a movie focused on two women who are not in their twenties. Do you think such films are more possible in France than other places?
Oh, but you have films like that in the United States, too, no?
Honestly? It’s pretty rare!
Hmm. I suppose it is a bit rare, even here. I guess you’re right! Well, I’m glad you express an interest in such stories, the truth is we’re all going to get older, we all know women like this, this is not a story just for women, it’s a story that concerns everyone!
Can you imagine yourself working in American films one day?
You know, if I were younger, I might have given that a shot. But, truthfully, there are so many roles that I love here in France that I’m just not motivated to look elsewhere. I don’t have a desire to leave just to leave. I mean, I know there are many people who have done it successfully — look at Catherine Deneuve and Marion Cotillard and others — but frankly, it’s just never something I’ve given much thought to. I also do a lot of theater here which I would never want to give up. And I love the French language. I guess that answers your question — je suis une Française, c’est tout! (Laughs.)
Well, let me just say what an honor it’s been to talk to one of the finest actresses on the planet right now.
Ah, ben…monsieur — merci beaucoup!