« On the Horns of a Dilemma | Main | The Camera Doesn't Lie »

Midwife Crisis

Geko Films

Midwives (2023)

There are real childbirth scenes throughout “Midwives,” which is a testament to the skill of the director, Léa Fehner, in creating an environment where these parents felt comfortable enough to allow these intimate moments to be filmed. But this is the only comfortable thing about this movie, a cri-de-coeur about the state of French healthcare system which is obviously what brought it to the Berlinale. It’s similar to the recent “The Divide,” except that was about a hospital as a metaphor for the nation, while this movie is only focused on the maternity ward.

It's loosely structured around the first year in the careers of the newly qualified Sofia (Khadija Kouyaté) and her roommate, Louise (Héloïse Janjaud), who arrives on her first day onto the ward in Toulouse in the middle of a screaming breakup with a boyfriend. Sofia makes a much better first impression, but she’s immediately put on birthing-class duty, while Louise is thrown in at the deep end, helping in multiple deliveries right away. There’s a shocking contrast to the way in which the medical staff shout and snap at each other while expressing nothing but kindness and patience with the patients. The ward is perennially understaffed, with the midwives having to juggle up to four people in labor at a time; the exasperated, impatient team leader, Bénédicte (Myriem Akheddiou), even advises Louise to get used to urinary tract infections, because there’s no time to pee on shift. One particularly bad day for Marilyn (Marine Gesbert, a spitfire) involves one of her patients giving birth alone while she tries to stop another woman in labor from bleeding to death.

The comic relief from all the stress is intern Valentin (Quentin Vernede), a gawky redhead who eagerness to help is matched only by his clumsiness. The team’s reaction to the cake he bakes one afternoon is a comic masterpiece. Sofia and Louise rent Valentin their sofa, and all goes well until Sofia experiences a terrifying delivery during which a homeless undocumented immigrant named Mariam (Toulou Kiki Bilal) nearly loses her baby. Sofia’s confidence is so badly damaged she calls for unnecessary doctor consults and shouts at the patients, causing manager Capucine (Fleur Fitoussi, channeling Celia Imrie from the British TV show “Dinnerladies”) to put her on leave. Then Valentin gets lost in the hospital and discovers Mariam and her baby living in a stairwell. He brings them back to the flat, where Sofia demonstrates a kindness that surprises even herself. But Louise doesn’t want the responsibility, which puts their friendship at risk. The situation is made worse by Louise handling the delivery of colleague Reda’s (Tarik Kariouh) sister’s baby with expert skill – mainly needed for their overbearing mother – which means her career position is suddenly much better than Sofia’s.

Ms. Fehner cowrote the script with Catherine Paillé based on the stories of six midwives who are prominently thanked in the credits. Jacques Girault’s camera and Julien Chigot’s editing combine with Emmanuelle Villard’s sound to make the ward feel like a real workplace, albeit one where life-or-death consequences that most people never experience happen several times a day. The bitterness of the midwives is against the workload and the constant budget cuts that work them to the bone; and there’s no slack in the system anymore. Everyone in the hospital is truly doing their best, but it’s only barely good enough, and usually not even that. And even that is only possible due to the willingness of the medical professionals to sacrifice their own health, emotional wellbeing and time with their own families. When Louise touches Reda’s arm in front of a startled Charlotte (Lucie Mancipoz) it’s a rare moment of kindness between the staff – and of course, Charlotte knows exactly what it means, and makes sure Reda sees she knows. It all builds to a day when Bénédicte must make an impossible, horrible choice.

The result of that choice becomes a huge scream of despair against a system that values profits over health and doesn’t put the bodies of its people, especially the most helpless ones, first. The work of economist Katrine Marçal is to be recommended here. It’s hard to see these little lives come into the world and not be overwhelmed with the desire to protect them; and it’s harder to understand why our medical systems don’t make that easier for the professionals who do that protecting. But “Midwives” is not a polemic; and it’s not propaganda (though people who hate the idea of socialized healthcare will see it that way). It’s just an exceptional movie in how it centers the human body and its requirements, and tells a deeply human story about what we risk when we don’t protect ourselves.


Post a comment

This weblog only allows comments from registered users. To comment, please Sign In.

© 2008-2024 Critic's Notebook and its respective authors. All rights reserved.
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Subscribe to Critic's Notebook | Follow Us on X
Contact Us | Write for Us | Reprints and Permissions | Powered by TypePad