The Widow of
review by Paula Nechak, 9 March
rugged isolation of a new world deemed the "Second French
Republic" – Newfoundland and Dog Island in the year 1849 - is
as pervasive a character as its human counterparts in Patrice
Leconte's extraordinary enigma of a movie, The Widow of
Saint-Pierre. This forsaken landscape and township is a bleak,
bleary, barren place, dank with winter's stain and as impossible to
shake of its old world repression as the cold that cuts its
inhabitants to the quick.
the visage of the ravishing Madame La (Juliette Binoche) inflames
and infuriates the staid governing bodies. Madame's husband (a
thankfully thawed Daniel Auteuil) is the town's military captain and
he is a proud, furiously driven-by-justice type A who contradicts in
private by passionately loving his headstrong wife and refusing her
nothing - not even the body and soul of a condemned-to-death killer
named Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica, the Bosnian director of Underground
and Black Cat, White Cat, in a complex and compelling turn).
La is certain she can salvage Neel's blackened heart by freeing him
from his prison chains, and, under her husband's tolerant and
trusting gaze, reform him and deliver him back into the embrace of a
skeptical society still propelled by France's laws and mandates; one
of which includes the impending arrival of a guillotine with which
to sever Neel's bearish head from his massive frame.
the mayor and officials of the town never expect is that Madame La's
plan for salvation is blissfully successful. Neel indeed turns his
life around under the tent of her friendship and initially wary
citizens who once threw stones slowly learn to accept his presence
among them and ultimately to admire him, thus rebelling against his
conviction and angering the powers that be.
is certainly deeper political motivation at the core of "The
Widow of Saint-Pierre" and viewers might access it in varying
ways depending upon their conservative or liberal leanings.
Leconte's unwillingness to provide a comfortable or easy conclusion
to the machinations of the minds and thinking of Madame La, La
Capitaine and even Neel, only deepen the eventual tragedy of the
story and wield it a bit sturdier and more complicated trajectory
than the genre-confining "period romance" oeuvre it has
been relegated to in ads and trailers. This unease allows a wariness
to grow, on the part of the viewer, as we tensely wait for her plan
to fail and for Neel to fall back into his primitive state of
violence. Leconte even complicates issues by taunting us with a
subdued longing that lingers between Madame La and Neel as their
fingers touch during a reading lesson, and which is never requited
or acknowledged, only silently, passively understood.
humaneness of the film is in the fact that every one of these
probably very calculated moves is almost indecently compassionate
and designed to laud the effects of sheer goodness over the
injustice of pre-determined prejudice and fear. And yet each
tempered measure is stated as silently as the longing that evolves
between its characters. It's an effect that bypasses rational
thought and pierces a more primal place in the body.
Widow of Saint-Pierre
also stands as a select composite of Leconte's existing body of work
– certainly more than as a piece of dressed costume drama.
Contained partially within its chilly realm is the quiet palette of Monsieur
Hire, Leconte's statement on fantasy, illusion, identity and the
harsh shattering of reality. And there are elements of the fiery
romantic passion of The Hairdresser's Husband. More, the
disembowelment of rigorous social mores and confines so well
displayed in Ridicule obviously affect the tone. Even the
de-saturated look, and the use of Auteuil, remind of Leconte's
black-and-white love story, Girl on the Bridge.
this is a more mature work than any of them. In its understatement
it relies upon our -- and the character’s -- innate wisdom to make
it work. It requires patience and demands constant tending to catch
the subtleties that abound. And in Binoche, Auteuil and Kusturica,
Leconte has found actors who have never been easy to read. They lend
layer upon layer of paradox to a film already beset with
contradiction and intangibility and ultimately, which remains as
complicated and labyrinthine as human nature itself.
Ernest R. May
Philip D. Zelikow
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult