Friday March 9, 2001
Juliette Binoche is rapidly becoming the leading romantic heroine of the international cinema with such films as "The English Patient," "Lovers on the Bridge," the current "Chocolat" and now with Patrice Leconte's sweeping, superb "The Widow of Saint-Pierre." A dark-haired beauty of infinite self-possession, Binoche radiates the strength and intelligence of a woman capable of risking all--with her eyes wide open.
It is indicative of the complexity and unpredictability of Patrice Leconte's superbly controlled film that its title may or may not ultimately refer to Binoche's Pauline, Madame La. What is certain is that in French "widow" is also slang for guillotine.
In 1849 on Saint-Pierre, an island off Newfoundland and a French colony, there is no guillotine. That is lucky for fisherman Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica, the Sarajevo-born director known for his Oscar-nominated "When Father Was Away on Business," in his acting debut). Seriously drunk, he fatally stabs a portly man in a silly jest with a pal. He is swiftly sentenced to death, but the local judge (Philippe Magnan) and the island's governor (Michel Duchaussoy), key figures in Saint-Pierre's pompous civil leadership, decide that it would be unseemly to put Neel to death except by a guillotine operated by a formally designated executioner. (What would the Republic of France think of Saint-Pierre otherwise?, asks the judge indignantly.)
The Captain (Daniel Auteuil), in command of the island's fortress and military contingent, decides that it is wrong to keep Neel locked up indefinitely. He is put to work building a greenhouse for his wife, Pauline, who in turn teaches him how to write. The Captain and his wife are a free-thinking modern couple, and under their kindly guardianship Neel blossoms, developing into one of the most popular individuals on the entire island.
Not surprisingly, the transformation of Neel from an inarticulate brute to a sensitive, caring man is perceived by the judge and the governor and their cronies as an increasing threat to their authority. However, if somehow a guillotine can be obtained, would the power elite be able to find anyone willing to let loose its blade?
Based on an actual incident, "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" is a classic instance of the will of the people in danger of being subverted by the few in power who are blinded by self-importance and determined to assert and preserve authority at all costs. But Leconte keeps us guessing as to how Neel's saga will play out.
There is, however, much more to "Widow," for it has a rich emotional subtext. The judge's wife wryly remarks that there's nothing like having a convict around to stimulate a husband's ardor. Now the Captain and his wife clearly have a most passionate relationship, yet we suspect the judge's wife knows what she's talking about. The Captain realizes and respects the strong bond that has formed between his wife and Neel, a shaggily handsome fellow, but shrewdly he counters this relationship by expressing how fully and deeply he loves his wife.
On both emotional and political levels, which almost always are ultimately intertwined, it is impossible to guess not only how the film will turn out but even what will develop in the very next scene. Claude Faraldo's most engrossing and inventive script, alternately serious and comic, is beautifully realized by Binoche, Auteuil and Kusturica, all of whom reveal a nobility of spirit and stylish gallantry so cherished by the French. Cameraman Eduardo Serra and composer Pascal Esteve contribute immeasurably to the sweep and elegance of "The Widow of Saint-Pierre," which has a setting as remote as it is picturesque.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre, 2001. R, for scene of sexuality and brief violence. A Lions Gate Film release. Director Patrice Leconte. Producers Gilles Legrand, Frederic Brillon. Screenplay by Claude Faraldo. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Editor Joelle Hache. Music Pascal Esteve. Costumes Christian Gasc. Art director Ivan Maussion. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Juliette Binoche as Pauline, Madame La. Daniel Auteuil as The Captain. Emir Kusturica as Neel Auguste. Philippe Magnan as Judge Vernot. Michel Duchaussoy as The Governor.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times