The Widow of Saint-Pierre
In a time and place where "values" and "ethics" seem like foreign words with little or no meaning, it's fitting (and perhaps only possible) that a film that takes these traits seriously should come from outside Hollywood. French director Patrice Leconte's The Widow of Saint-Pierre weaves an engrossing and enormously satisfying tale rife with contradictions, passions, nobility, and senselessness. Leconte (Girl on the Bridge) holds a mirror up to the human condition and gives us a clear look at ourselves in all our grotesque beauty.
In 1849, on the isolated, weather-beaten French-Canadian island of Saint-Pierre, two drunken fishermen foolishly and brutally murder their former captain, setting off a chain of events both ennobling and catastrophic. One of the convicted murderers, Neel Auguste (Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica in his film-acting debut), is placed in the custody of Jean (Daniel Auteuil), the impossibly honorable captain of the local military garrison, until the island's petty, self-righteous magistrate can get ahold of a guillotine (the French slang for which is "widow"). Jean's implacable wife, Pauline (Juliette Binoche), is immediately fascinated by the shaggy Neel and decides to "rehabilitate" him. When Pauline challenges her husband about the barbaric nature of the death penalty, Jean gives her his support.
At first, the townspeople and their leaders don't seem concerned about Pauline's zealous enthusiasm for Neel. He tends Pauline's garden (despite his ignorance of plants), becomes a village handyman, and even accompanies Pauline to a neighboring island. Mirroring Jean's total trust in his wife, the townspeople eventually take up Neel's cause and hope to prevent his execution.
Leconte avoids predictability; all of Saint-Pierre's principal characters are complex. Neel's shaggy-dog quality, which initially comes across as menacing, gradually gives way to the compelling human being within. Jean's utter devotion to Pauline proves both reckless and admirable. Pauline remains the film's most volatile and enigmatic figure, and Binoche imbues her with a deep well of emotional truth. Just as the villagers don't know what to make of the imperious yet gracious Pauline, the audience is never given a simple, comforting explanation for her actions; they seem to spring from a blend of political naiveté, strong self-assurance, and possibly even romantic caprice. Quietly but determinedly raising questions of commitment, faith, and honor while refusing to provide pat resolutions to the contradictory actions of the human heart, The Widow of Saint-Pierre makes for maddeningly good entertainment.