Berlinale Review: Sages-Femmes (2023)

The genre of medical movies is mostly populated with the struggles and romantic explorations of doctors and nurses, the two swathes of people we associate with it. Sages-femmes narrows that down to midwives and then applies a fairly stereotypical treatment to its story, but to very good effect. Léa Fehner’s movie is an ode to the dedication of this mostly female staff, that rises above chronic underfunding, being overworked and managing complex situations, both professionally and personally.

We follow Sofia and Louise, friends and young midwives who are just starting out in their chosen careers. Their experiences differ wildly and soon create friction between the two, as Sofia eases into the role once given the chance, while Louise struggles. Things change after a difficult case where Sofia loses her self-confidence and their stories and travails are suddenly turned on their heads.

They are ultimately both victims to the wider environment, the underfunded and anxiously hectic hospital setting. It’s a sadly never-ending tale, which we’ve recently seen, also on the labor ward, from a different angle in This Is Going to Hurt. To survive, you have to pick your fights and try to not let things get to you, which is a challenge that nobody should have to bear – particularly in life or death situations.

It’s all fleshed out in the explosive first part of Sages Femmes, which is intense, fast-paced and mostly dire. The movie shifts at the halfway point and becomes more, let’s say, humanistic, focusing on the fallout and the strength it takes to keep it all together.

To add to the veracity of its story, Sages Femmes captures a lot of the intimacy of childbirth, in a cvasi-documentarian fashion. Fehner filmed live births before re-enacting them with willing parents, making for an unusually naturalistic approach. It gets the most of these scenes, which are dramatic, beautiful, life-changing. Midwives witness them every day, many times over, and like all medical professionals, have to balance the roteness with the uniqueness these moments inhabit. The cast is exceptional at portraying this and even the characters that don’t take up much screen time end up as established people in our minds.

This is ultimately a familiar, but well executed medical drama. It found appreciation at the Berlinale, where it won the prize of the ecumenical jury in the Panorama section. Fehner indulges in dramatic excesses and only brushes against some of the endemic issues that are sadly common in the profession, which is another way of saying that this is a story that tries to find the silver lining(s). There’s nothing wrong with that and Sages-femmes makes for spirited and hopeful cinema. 8

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