Put stars Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve in a film together and the combination alone is a special attraction. They don’t disappoint in the French import “The Midwife” (“Sage Femme”), the extremely well-acted and engrossing story of an unusual relationship written and directed by Martin Provost.

Frot plays Claire, a sensitive, accomplished midwife working at a clinic. She is personally withdrawn, burying herself in her demanding schedule and handling emergencies with skill. She also has a student son, Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), who leads a life pretty much on his own, has a girlfriend and shocks Claire at one point with news that he and his gal are expecting a baby.

A long-upsetting back story emerges when Claire gets a call from Béatrice, the mistress of Claire’s late father, who abandoned him with a dire result. Shocked, Claire dutifully meets Béatrice but doesn’t want any relationship, as she is still furious over what happened in the past.

Béatrice is the opposite of Claire—flamboyant and overtly carefree, with a zest for food and wine. But beneath it all is the anxiety of learning that she has brain cancer with little chance of survival. She is both financially and emotionally needy and attaches herself to reluctant Claire. But Claire has a good heart, and the film traces the ups and downs of the relationship that develops in Béatrice’s time of crisis. It also is important for Claire, as it helps her to deal with the past.

Meanwhile, Claire, who hasn’t had a relationship with a man In ages, meets Paul, most sympathetically played by Olivier Gourmet, who tends a garden next to her garden at the country sites they maintain. Paul, an international truck driver, is earthy and appealing, and the question is to what extent Claire can let herself go and become romantically involved. Meanwhile, Claire has a work problem, as with the clinic closing she has the opportunity to go to an upscale, ultra modern facility, which is anathema to her, but she must make a decision.

It is a joy to watch these two great actresses delineate their respective characters. Frot is superb in communicating the nuances of Claire’s personality and the change that takes place gradually. Deneuve is also superb in depicting Béatrice’s desperation and the prospect of the unfulfilled life she wants to hold onto and expand, as well as her need to be close to someone.

Writer-director Provost makes the details most convincing as he touches many narrative and emotional bases. I’m not keen on the ultimate outcome even though I would be hard-pressed to suggest a more satisfying one. But more importantly, the main pleasure in watching “The Midwife” lies in savoring Frot and Deneuve in such top acting form. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed July 12, 2017.

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