I suppose it's not surprising that a film with a definitive title like The Midwife" would play heavily on archetypes. In this case, there are two -- two Catherines to be exact. Catherine Deneuve plays Beatrice, an ageing Parisian whose carpe diem spirit is finally reined in with a cancer diagnosis. But she's far too outgoing to live her last days out alone.

It's hard to know if she's trying to make amends or simply has no one else to ask, but she calls up the daughter of a former lover. Claire (Catherine Frot) is surprised to hear from her father's mistress, especially since the woman left without warning some 30 years before, but she reluctantly agrees to meet her. The result is a fine character study on how time and one's impending mortality can slowly mend years of heartache.

In the hands of Deneuve and Frot, the main plot (that of a complicated relationship, seasoned equally with compassion and exasperation) is a joy to watch. Claire is a mild-tempered midwife, who fits nicely into a sort of Provincial cliché -- she rides her bike to and from work along lightly worn rural paths. And how is her free time spent? Nurturing her plants in a vegetable garden, of course. Frot gives great dimension to a woman who certainly has her convictions but is far too modest to ever make a scene (when her college son and his girlfriend announce a pregnancy, she apologizes for her initial outburst -- which was only an outburst when compared relatively to her normal calm reserve).

She masterfully balances a character that's outwardly restrained but still committed to a myriad of passions (at the top of that list, as the film's title might suggest, is the age-old tradition of midwifery). Deneuve, on the other hand, brings some much-needed comic relief to the film -- sure, she's dying, but she's having none of Claire's chiding that perhaps she should cut back on the wine and red meat. The two bicker, and indeed have some hurdles to overcome (maybe don't just show up after 30 years and expect things to be peachy), but ultimately the two turn out to be good for each other. It's a classic story of the outgoing adventurer rubbing off on the conservative recluse -- and vice versa.

The less successful aspects of the film come when it focuses less on the characters and more on the undercurrent of social issues that the film's title suggests. Midwifery is often seen as a more natural and/or personal way of delivering a baby, and inevitably the film sets up a tradition vs. progress narrative. Early on, we learn that the clinic where Claire works is shutting down (it's suggested it's due to the burgeoning industry that is big medicine). Her son, Simon, confesses he's planning to ditch his goal of becoming a surgeon to follow in his mother's footsteps.

You might think Claire would be happy, but instead she exclaims, "Why are all you (men) interested in this?" It's one of Claire's only outbursts in the film, and it's confusing more than anything. It's not that there isn't a point to make about the landscape of midwifery changing to include men, and it's not that the criticism against "baby factories" (as Claire calls big hospitals) isn't valid as well, but this film just doesn't develop these points enough for them to land with any punch. The film assumes you're on Claire's side already without explaining what exactly is different between her clinic and a big hospital. And the emotional potency we get in the relationship between Claire and Beatrice just isn't quite achieved in any of the scenes in her clinic, although some half-hearted attempts are made. In the end, it makes the b-plot -- Claire choosing whether or not to transition to the big hospital with the rest of her clinic's staff -- somewhat irrelevant to the movie. We just never get invested in that story.

And maybe that's OK. Maybe the film was trying to do too much, and what it really wanted to be was a character film. Because when we return to Claire and Beatrice living in the moment together -- whether that be a wild truck ride or working together to get the landlord off Beatrice's back -- the film captures something truly magical: how a person learns to make peace with another. And how a person learns to make peace with herself.