The Widow of Saint-Pierre
review by Paula Nechak, 9 March 2001

The 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.

Here 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).

Madame 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.

What 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.

There 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.

The 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.

The 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.

 But 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.

Directed by:
Roger Donaldson

Kevin Costner
Bruce Greenwood
Steven Culp
Dylan Baker
Henry Strozier
Frank Wood
Len Cariou
Janet Coleman

Written by:
Ernest R. May
Philip D. Zelikow

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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