Director Patrice Leconte doesn’t mess around with minor themes. Whether on the more intimate scale of fascinating Monsieur Hire (1989) or the more recent Girl on the Bridge (1999), or on the grander scale of French costume drama like Ridicule (1996) he demonstrates a remarkable ability to combine a skill for powerful narrative with thoughtful investigations of morality, human relations, and love.
It comes as no surprise, then, that The Widow of St. Pierreis an extraordinarily accomplished film, telling an engrossing story that has the inevitability of great tragedy, and, at the same time, the freshness and unpredictability of genuinely original work. It is the best movie released in the United States this year to date, and it is a movie that should gain and hold audiences for generations to come.
Set in 1850 on St. Pierre, an island off of the coast of Newfoundland, The Widow of St. Pierre is based on events that actually transpired in this remote outpost of French colonialism. A man was condemned to death for murder, but, under French law, could be executed only by a guillotine (one meaning of the "widow" in the title – "widow" is a French colloquialism for "guillotine"). Since there was no guillotine on the island, one had to be imported, resulting in a delay of eight months. During that time, the remorseful condemned man earned the respect and affection of the community.
Claude Faraldo’s screenplay draws on the actual court transcripts of the day, fleshing out the historical circumstances with a quartet offlesh-and-blood characters. The condemned man, Nell Auguste (Emir Kusturica), is taciturn, gentle, docile, contrite.He is in the custody of the captain of the island’s military detachment (DanielAuteuil) who is independent, proud, humane, and passionately in love with his wife (Juliette Binoche), known as "Madame La," who reciprocates in kind. Madame La, with her husband’s approval, sets out to rehabilitate his prisoner, offering trust and the chance for him to redeem himself through service in the community.
Rounding out the foursome is the governor (Michel Duchaussoy), pompous and self-important, dedicated to maintaining the letter of French law, more as a means of sustaining his own authority than through any convictions about fairness or justice. Even as the condemned man becomes more sympathetic and wins the hearts of the town, the governor determinedly pursues the means to his execution, earning, in the process, the scorn even of his own father and wife.
But it is the captain who becomes the fulcrum of the dilemma. The law and his position require him to carry out the sentence, but his broader moral sense suggests a greater duty, even as his heart reads his wife’s similar conclusion, one which she will not speak openly because she knows it will put him in an untenable situation.
While the clarity of both Leconte’s direction and Farad’s script put the issues into perspective, they never preach, but rather proceed with the exposition of their narrative, propelling it with gathering momentum. In the icy St. Pierre winter, Leconte uses a minimum of color, blues emphasizing the penetrating cold, with only the deep red dress of Madame La in contrast. Spring is signaled with a few drops of water dripping from a branch and the first bit of green. Many of the interiors are as dark as they must indeed have been in the rustic accommodations of the island. Leconte fills the screen with fresh and telling images: the sight of a sleek black horse (the captain’s new mount, his possession of pride) being hoisted from a ship with block and tackle; the scraggly growth of Madame’s greenhouse, which flourishes under the care of Auguste; a triumphal arch at the dock which is the entrance to the town–a statement to all who pass though it of the authority of French law even in this remote place; the gossipy gatherings of the small elite of the town, where the sting of verbal judgements pressures conformity to peer values.
Kusturica, a director, here in his first appearance as an actor, has little in the way of lines, but his eyes and body language speak volumes. Binoche, nominated for an Academy award for her charming, but lesser performance in last year’s Chocolat, is far more interesting here in a less romanticized role with an edge of willfulness accompanying her passion for her husband and her benevolent convictions. Auteuil radiates the pride and confidence of the captain’s rank, but solidly based on conviction and authority, not on title and uniform, a sharp contrast with the blustery pomp of the governor. "He cuckolds our men without ever screwing us!" exclaims one of the gossipy wives about the captain.
The Widow of St. Pierre is old-fashioned storytelling; it makes no attempt to seduce the audience with effects or gimmickry. Instead, a thoughtful script and fine performances are molded by Leconte into a lean, profound and moving film. It is art that never forgets to be entertainment.