ArtsATL > Film > Review: Two films, “The Midwife” and “Brigsby Bear,” smartly delve into the complexity of friendship

Review: Two films, “The Midwife” and “Brigsby Bear,” smartly delve into the complexity of friendship

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot in the engaging The Midwife.

There’s a quietly gorgeous moment in The Midwife, consisting of two shots. The first is of a woman, naked, her sleeping lover’s head resting in her lap. The second shot is subjective, showing us what she sees as she gazes through the open door of their cabin: the lush, green landscape outside. The silent sequence captures the way, in a moment of love or calm or satisfaction, our senses can be saturated by the world in all its simple, complex beauty.

If only the rest of The Midwife were this inspired. Still, it’s an engaging movie, made compulsively watchable by two of French cinema’s current greats: Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot.

Frot, wonderful as the deluded but endearing Florence Foster Jenkins stand-in of 2015’s Marguerite, takes on a quieter, mousy role here. She’s Claire, the titular midwife working in a small town a brief train ride away from Paris. For three decades she’s delivered babies — long enough that a new mother thanks Claire for bringing her into the world many years before. Her life is sane and methodical: she owns a tidy apartment and lunches on weekends with her son Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), who’s studying medicine at the university. That’s about it.

Two things suddenly threaten Claire’s routine. The clinic where she works is soon to shutter, absorbed by an anonymous, bottom-line hospital she calls “the new baby factory.” While she’s trying to decide whether to join this health care juggernaut or launch a midlife freelance career, she gets that proverbial phone call from the past.

It’s Béatrice (Deneuve), the flamboyant woman who upended Claire’s life as a teenager by having an affair with Claire’s father, a world-famous, professional swimmer. Proof of Béatrice’s careless approach to the world comes when she now meets Claire for lunch and casually asks how her old lover is. The answer is dead, a suicide, shortly after Béatrice abandoned him. Though this has been common knowledge for 30 years, Béatrice — supported through the years by a revolving roster of wealthy men — has managed to miss it.

That’s a shock, because she has brain cancer. She’s looking for safe harbor. The movie’s main plot centers on Claire’s decision whether or not to provide it. Stern and health-conscious, she disapproves of Béatrice’s disregard for her own well-being. Béatrice smokes and only cares for the red items on a menu (wine, meat). And she’s forever making little jabs about Claire’s wardrobe, demeanor, etc.

This odd-couple comedy is familiar in outline but enriched by the lead actors. Frot has the harder, less showy role, and she’s terrific. That said, she can’t totally sell us on Claire’s gradual embrace of Béatrice. In real life, Béatrice is someone you’d break speed limits to escape, an emotional and economic vampire absorbing anything she can. Deneuve’s gusto and movie-star glamour make us overlook that reality. One of the film’s main joys is watching this screen legend cut loose — while never looking like someone actually contending with a terminal diagnosis.

A subplot about Claire’s romance with a truck driver (Olivier Gourmet) is meant to show us how Béatrice’s untamed spirit is inspiring the younger woman to open up to life. Whatever. Still, while his script is often schematic, writer-director Martin Provost (Séraphine) delivers one other sequence in the film that’s as visually memorable as the one I mentioned at the start.

As the women project slides on a bedroom wall, of Claire’s father in his swimming prime, Simon leans in through the door, his face merging with that of his grandfather. For Béatrice, it’s as if the ghost of her young lover has returned; time collapses.

Another movie that’s (sort of) about reunions and reestablishing long-lost connections, Brigsby Bear is an oddball indie that challenges you to get on its deadpan wavelength. If you manage, it’s worth it.

A little like Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the movie is about a young adult, long held in captivity, emerging into a world deeply, weirdly unfamiliar. Here it’s James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney, who cowrote the script). A 20-something naïf, he has grown up in a desert bunker with April and Ted (Jane Adams and Mark Hamill), his mom and dad. Only, they aren’t, as James learns the hard way when FBI agents storm the compound and haul him out into the real world.

Kyle Mooney in Brigsby Bear.

Seems he was stolen as a baby by Ted, a rich, eccentric inventor, from the absolutely middle-American Salt Lake City home of Greg (Veep’s Matt Walsh) and Louise Pope (Michaela Watkins). James’s biological family — including surly teenage sister Aubrey (Ryan Simkins, who’s really good) — try to help him ease his way into the world. Aubrey grudgingly take James with her to an unchaperoned party at a classmate’s house, where the young man is introduced to beer, molly and the exploratory come-ons of Audrey’s classmate Meredith (Alexa Demie). But just when you’re worried that the movie will be going for easy fish-out-of-water jokes, Brigsby Bear maintains an affectionate and sincere tone. It doesn’t go where you expect.

So what’s with the title? Well, that’s the name of the amateurish children’s show James has watched on VCR all his life. Following the cheesy intergalactic adventures of a talking, animatronic bear and his teenage helpers, the twin Smile Sisters, the series was delivered one episode per week at James’s old bunker.

Problem is, the show doesn’t exist in the outside world. Brigsby was a peculiar creation, directed and taped every week by his abductor-dad Ted. With that information, and following a trip to the multiplex with Greg to see a comedy called Hockey Hut, James asks, “Can anyone do it?”

Soon, he’s Googling “How to Make a Movie Show,” and starts to script his own version of Brigsby, with the help (hesitant at first, then enthusiastic) of Aubrey, Meredith and their classmate Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). In short, an artist is born. The authority figures around James — including Greg Kinnear as a kindly cop and Claire Danes as an out-of-her-depth therapist — have to decide whether his new obsession is a regression into his past, or the key to his emergence in the here-and-now.

Directed with rigorous deadpan by Dave McCary (an SNL writer), Brigsby Bear benefits from a great generosity of spirit. It loves and celebrates James for the sort of grand passion that may be more important than its object. A key to the film is Mooney’s performance. He never pushes to be adorable or funny; he’s a polite explorer in unknown terrain. The rest of the cast follows his lead, making the movie’s weirdo premise almost plausible.

There’s a scene in Brigsby that really got me. Tossing around ideas with Spencer, plotting how to make their movie, James looks at the teenager with a dawning realization. “You’re my friend,” he says, surprised and gratified. It’s an offhand moment of wonderment.

The Midwife. With Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve. Written and directed by Martin Provost. In French with subtitles. Unrated. 117 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

Brigsby Bear. With Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Ryan Simpkins, Matt Walsh, Greg Kinnear. Directed by Dave McCary. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes. At metro theaters.

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