Sage femme (2017)
Directed by: Martin Provost | 117 minutes | drama | Actors: Catherine Deneuve, Catherine Frot, Olivier Gourmet, Quentin Dolmaire, Mylène Demongeot, Pauline Parigot, Pauline Etienne, Marie Gili-Pierre, Jeanne Rosa, Elise Oppong, Jacques Mechelany, Anthony Dechaux
‘Séraphine’ (2008), ‘Où va la nuit’ (2011) or ‘Violette’ (2013). Anyone who has seen previous films by Martin Provost will have noticed that women are central to this. The screenwriter and director believes that women are wrongly subordinate in many films. In response, the feminist French filmmaker likes to portray strong, independent female characters in his films. Provost also continues this in ‘Sage Femme’, screened at the Berlin Film Festival 2017, in which an ambiguous meaning is assigned to the film title. A title that can mean both a midwife and an exemplary woman and thus refers to Claire, one of the main characters.
Claire Breton (Catherine Frot), 49, is a single mother and midwife by profession. She is the pinnacle of goodness and leads a simple, quiet life. However, this life is disrupted by an unexpected phone call from Béatrice Sobolewski (Catherine Deneuve), former mistress of Claire’s now deceased father. Béatrice left Claire and her father unannounced at the time and that still bothers her quite a bit. Why Béatrice now, after all these years, is seeking rapprochement is a great mystery to Claire. Curiosity takes over Claire and she decides to visit Béatrice.
It soon becomes clear that the adult women are each other’s extremes. While Claire prefers to grow organic food in her vegetable garden, Béatrice likes greasy food, drinks, smoking and gambling. The two are also completely different in appearance: hair groomed to perfection, red lipstick and nail polish, a tiger print and pumps make Béatrice a kind of diva. Claire’s simplicity in lifestyle and clothing is further emphasized by the extreme contrast. Béatrice is straight forward. She makes no secret of the fact that Claire is too serious in her eyes and clumsy in dealing with men.
It looks like both women will never understand each other, but nothing could be further from the truth. Although Claire is a bit distant in the beginning, Béatrice knows how to attract Claire’s attention every time and completely in her own, charismatic way. Little by little the midwife comes out of her shell and slowly but surely seems to realize that there is so much more to life than just work and a vegetable garden. In principle Claire’s ‘new’ life starts here and Provost has managed to portray this beautifully by drawing a parallel with the recording of real-life (!) births. At the same time, the differences in childbirth seem to reflect events in Claire’s life. She also gets to know the son of neighbor Baron, Paul (Olivier Gourmet). A very nice man who, with his angelic patience, and with a little help from Béatrice, manages to win over Claire’s feelings. Despite all the contradictions, the women have one thing in common: the love and loss of Antoine Breton, Claire’s father and Béatrice’s ex-lover. As a viewer, you get to know Antoine through stories, memories and photos, but at the same time also through Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), Claire’s son, who resembles his grandfather like two drops of water.
The story in ‘Sage Femme’ is, just like Claire, a bit on the good side. If you hope for a “grand spectacle”, you can wait a long time, but this does not take away from the fact that it is an entertaining film. Thanks in part to the strong interplay of Frot and Deneuve, you cannot escape the humor and chemistry between the two. They really bring out the best in each other. In ‘Sage Femme’ it is not so much about the bond between a (step)mother and daughter (because sometimes the two women seem more like sisters) but what it is mainly about is the appreciation for other people’s vision of life. How Béatrice gets the decent Claire to enjoy life a little more instead of doing everything by the rules is definitely worth watching.