The Widow of Saint Pierre
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.

      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
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),
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
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
as a triumph for all concerned.

              Rating:                A -
              MPAA Rating:        R for a scene of sexuality and brief violence