Warm, funny female bonding in ‘The Midwife’

Decades after one caused heartbreak for the other, two women of opposite temperament form a meaningful friendship, reunited by a cancer diagnosis, in “The Midwife.”

Yes, this French drama has a treacle problem. But its lead actresses generate more than enough spark to offset the sentimentality over the movie’s surprisingly enjoyable two-hour running time.

Writer-director Martin Provost, whose credits include the artist biodramas “Violette” and “Seraphine,” again presents flawed but fascinating women, played by top French actresses. He’s made a humane two-hander, operating more comically and wholly fictitiously this time.

Claire (Catherine Frot), a 49-year-old midwife, devotedly works at a small maternity clinic and lives a quiet home life devoid of drinking, partying and romance, in a suburb near Paris.

With the friendly but outdated clinic facing closure, and with her medical-student son (Quentin Dolmaire) forging his own path, Claire is dealing with change.

But nothing could prepare her for the shakeup she receives when Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve), her late father’s former mistress, reenters her life, as self-centered and exasperating as ever, but with brain cancer and redemptive intentions.

Many years ago, Beatrice abandoned Claire’s father. Her unexplained exit prompted tragedy.

Claire wants nothing to do with Beatrice, and the older woman’s put-downs (“You always looked older than your age”) and indulgences — cigarettes, drinking, gambling, fatty food — exacerbate Claire’s antipathy.

Still, Claire cannot shut out the friendless, penniless, ailing Beatrice. When Beatrice tells her doctor that Claire is her daughter, Claire goes along with the lie.

While Beatrice can be infuriating, the two bond. Claire gives Beatrice companionship and TLC. Beatrice loosens up Claire, who begins drinking wine and becomes sweetly involved with the truck driver (Olivier Gourmet) whose garden borders hers.

There’s not much plot; the easy-flowing action consists largely of lunch dates, bonding sessions and birth-clinic scenes.

As a cancer and friendship drama, the movie suffers from a sentimentality absent from the recent “Truman.” Its cliched moments actually include Claire (literally and symbolically) letting her hair down.

Yet the mix of social realism and Hallmark saccharine isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Frot, in the leading role, and Deneuve, as the force-of-personality catalyst, have ample opportunity to interact, and the results are emotionally authentic and captivating.

Deneuve, wearing leopard patterns and having a blast as the pleasure-seeking Beatrice, supplies audience-friendly bad-girl spirit while also demonstrating Beatrice’s desperation and (perhaps no stretch for this actress) innate elegance.

Frot, who shone in over-the-top form in last year’s Florence Foster Jenkins-inspired “Marguerite,” registers a wealth of emotional shades on her face when the self-denying Claire, from the inside out, brightens.

Enhanced by actual birthing footage, the film congeals into a warm and winning story about friendship, forgiveness and the preciousness of hands-on caring in an impersonal world.

The Midwife
Three stars
Starring Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourmet, Quentin Dolmaire
Written and directed by Martin Provost
Not rated
Running time 1 hour, 57 minutes

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