Director Patrice Leconte has been making feature films for more than 25 years, but he really only garnered internationally attention since the late 1980s, beginning with 1989's MONSIEUR HIRE. He achieved his greatest success (to date) with RIDICULE his briskly satirical 1996 motion picture set at the court of King Louis XIV. That film earned a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. A predominant theme to Leconte's work revolves around the fixation of one character on another, usually with an erotic undertone. Certainly, that was prevalent in GIRL ON THE BRIDGE, and it is at the heart of THE WIDOW OF SAINT PIERRE.
Unbelievably, it took Leconte to team two of France's best and most formidable actors -- Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil -- in this based-on-fact drama (scripted by Claude Faraldo) set on a remote island off the Canadian coast The filmmaker should be commended for bringing these two talents together, for their astonishing capabilities mesh completely and satisfyingly. Leconte also had the brilliant idea of casting Serbian director Emir Kusturica in his film acting debut as the other major character, a man who commits a murder and now faces execution by the guillotine. (The film's French title, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre, is a pun on the slang for that contraption. Indeed, there are a number of examples of such word play that don't exactly translate, which detract slightly from this otherwise excellent movie.)
From its opening long shot of a woman dressed in black, staring out a window in contemplation to its circular conclusion (with the audience now aware of who she is and why she appears as she does), THE WIDOW OF SAINT PIERRE is a visually attractive, well-acted tale.
Flashing back several years, the story shifts to the night of the murder when fisherman Neel Auguste (Kusturica) and a friend get into a drunken argument over whether a local man is "fat" or "big" (in French, a play on the words, "gros" and "gras"). The man is knifed and the pair find themselves arrested, tried and condemned. Auguste survives an attack by the villagers that leaves his companion dead, and he is remanded to the custody of the Captain (Auteuil), who is in charge of the prison. The Captain's wife, known as Madame La (Binoche) is an educated, forward-thinking woman who doesn't quite fit in with the rural community. The narrow minded governor (Michel Duchaussoy) clearly resents the Captain and his beautiful and intelligent wife. When Madame La befriends Neel, she skirts convention and heedlessly risks the wrath of the community. But she approaches his situation with an open-mind and a belief that "men can change." A proponent of rehabilitation versus execution, Madame La is a woman years ahead of her time.
That's the underlying tragedy of THE WIDOW OF SAINT PIERRE, which subtly presents the notion that some prisoners can be reformed. Auguste undergoes a transformation; yes, he committed a murder, but in the subsequent months while awaiting the arrival of a guillotine from Martinique, he comes to be a productive member of the community under the guidance of Madame La. For his part, the Captain goes along; he knows his wife well and is indulgent to her whims, knowing full-well just how headstrong she can be.
Leconte and his design team (cinematographer Eduardo Serra and production designer Yvan Maussion) have crafted a visually splendid motion picture. The look and feel of The Widow of Saint Pierre transports the viewer back to a lost world, one where the isolation is palpable, but where unexpected beauty can be found in a field covered in snow or a fog-shrouded dock. Leconte directs with a firm hand and is fortunate to have cast the three actors he has in the principal roles. The hulking Kusturica is perfect as the condemned man, capturing his native intelligence, yet projecting his simplicity. He also brings a strong undercurrent of affection for Madame La that is genuine but not sexual (despite the gossip of the townspeople). Auteuil is commanding as the Captain, a man so besotted by his wife that it proves a fatal flaw. He and Binoche have a terrific chemistry and are compellingly believable as a married couple. They work so well together that you immediately wonder why it has taken so long for someone to team them. (In 1995, they almost co-starred in LUCIE AUBRAC but Binoche left that project over creative differences with director Claude Berri.)
At the heart of the film, as she is in just about everything in which she appears, is Juliette Binoche. This incandescent actress uses her expressive face and eyes to create a subtle and moving portrait of a passionate, sensitive and strong-minded modern woman trapped by the conventions of her time. Her magnificent screen presence, coupled with her ability to connect with her co-stars takes this film to the level of true art and marks THE WIDOW OF SAINT PIERRE as a triumph for all concerned.
Rating: A - MPAA Rating: R for a scene of sexuality and brief violence