The Widow of Saint-Pierre
2000, R, 108 min. Directed by Patrice Leconte. Starring Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica, Philippe Magnan, Michel Duchaussoy.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 6, 2001
On a dreary, wind-ravaged island in 1859, an innocent man is killed by two sailors. Drunk silly, they jab a knife in him to determine whether he is fat or just big -- gras or gros. The two men are caught and speedily sentenced to death. But on the remote island of Saint-Pierre, a French colony off the coast of Newfoundland, there's no state-sanctified way to kill them. A long year passes in anticipation of a guillotine from the motherland, and in that year, one of the prisoners, Neel, undergoes an alarming transformation. Housed by the kind captain of the militia (Auteuil) and taken under the wing of the captain's wife, Madame La (Binoche), Neel goes from common criminal to stellar citizen. He does handiwork around the village, builds a greenhouse for Mme. La, learns to read, even saves a woman's life. He becomes a celebrated figure around Saint-Pierre, causing quite a quandary for the local powers-that-be: What happens when the man you sentence to die is no longer the man about to lose his head? The Widow of Saint-Pierre works best when it addresses issues like this, of self-betterment and state retribution. Firm in their conviction to see the sentence carried through to the end, the magistrates must find someone to serve as executioner. There are no local takers, so they have to ship someone in from a neighboring island, a desperate, pitiful man who becomes the town whipping boy. Mme. La forces him to confront Neel, to see the living, breathing head he will soon dismantle, and we see the executioner visibly waver. Everyone wavers in the face of Neel: the townspeople; Mme. La, a woman devoted to her husband yet willing to risk his career and his life to save a killer; the Captain, who would do anything to please his wife. Everyone wavers, that is, but Neel, the reformed man who nevertheless feels he deserves his sentence. These are fascinating contradictions, between lawlessness and the “justice” the law will dole out, and the film excels when it confronts these contradictions. Less compelling, however, is the murky love triangle that emerges between the three principals. Each actor does a fine job on his own, particularly Emir Kusturica, a writer/director from Sarajevo in his acting debut, as the man who killed and will be killed in recompense for his crime. Auteuil is strength and principle personified, crippled professionally by his immense love for Mme. La. And Binoche, as the woman caught in between, does here what she does best: muted, unendurable pain. But when combined, the individual fire of these three fizzles out; it's like they're reciting lines to each other rather than embodying these roles. The fault lies, I think, in the scripting of the characters (by Claude Faraldo). For all of their complexities, they're basically one-dimensional cutouts (each can easily be reduced to a phrase: the captain with a conscience, the wife with a bleeding heart, the criminal with a heart of gold). It's impossible to shake the feeling that these are merely actors -- albeit good ones -- dressed up in a costume drama, suffering theatrically under the weight of very big things. In theory, the very big things are what gets the blood pumping: tragic entanglements and huge, bewildering emotions. But these private traumas seem as wan-faced as the island's inhabitants who haven't seen the sun in eight months. And the inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion? More like a murmur than a break, it resonates so faintly with us. While the characters' personal dramas are powerful, their relationships to each other feel as disconnected as Neel's soon-to-be-lopped-off head.