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'Widow of Saint-Pierre' Examines Right vs. Reality

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2001


    'The Widow of Saint-Pierre' Juliette Binoche plays an 1850s woman with modern sensibilities in "The Widow of Saint-Pierre." (Lions Gate)
Juliette Binoche's tenacious heroine discovers the futility of fighting the establishment in Patrice Leconte's "The Widow of Saint-Pierre," a compelling French Canadian drama set on a wickedly cold island off the shores of Newfoundland in the mid-19th century. Though three centuries and an ocean away, the movie is clearly reminiscent of "The Return of Martin Guerre" in tone, theme and sweeping scale. All that's really missing here is Gerard Depardieu as the noble rustic fated to lose his head.

Instead, Emir Kusturica plays Auguste, a burly bumpkin with hands like shovels, an ox's heart and a tangle of hair the color of thatch. Auguste, an illiterate and perhaps retarded sailor, slices up a former captain when a drunken prank gets out of hand. During the trial, he confesses to the crime and is condemned to die. But there's a problem: The government can't carry out the sentence until it has secured both an executioner and a guillotine.

Pauline (Binoche) and her husband, Jean (Daniel Auteuil), an army captain posted there from Paris, are radiant newlyweds recently arrived on Saint-Pierre. Their insatiable lovemaking provides a dangerous and vivid contrast to the hardscrabble landscape and the furrowed faces of the villagers, most of them cod fishermen and their apt-to-be-widowed wives.

Told in flashback, the story opens on the alabaster Pauline, as still as stone in her widow's weeds. Soon enough we will see that the fog that shrouds Saint-Pierre for months at a time symbolizes the tragedy linked to the couple's concern for the lurching, frightened hulk imprisoned near their quarters.

While the authorities wait for a guillotine to come from the West Indies, Pauline persuades Jean, who is duty-bound to keep the prisoner under lock and key, to put Auguste in her care. In the hope of rehabilitating the poor oaf, she teaches him to groom himself, to read and to put his muscles to work for the good of others. As time passes, Auguste becomes the most popular man in Saint-Pierre, and when the guillotine arrives, the villagers vow to stay the blade.

Pauline has rehabilitated not only Auguste but the people of the island. We learn that before she entered their lives, there was no joie de vivre in Saint-Pierre. The colonists had grown as cold and unyielding as December's frozen waves.But alas, her kindly ways are no match for the political ambitions of Saint-Pierre's governor (Michel Duchaussoy), who is determined to behead Auguste and destroy her husband's military career.

The conflict between Pauline and the governor, between justice and law, is at least as old as the Ten Commandments. She would choose the former over the latter, yet the men in her life are fatalists with a more complicated and conflicted set of beliefs. Though right should prevail, it seldom does except in fairy tales. And this is not a fairy tale but a fable of crime and capital punishment.

Binoche, with those soulful eyes and that gleaming half-smile, could pass for the saintliest of nuns. It's a face she wears well, whether consoling a burn victim in "The English Patient," passing out bonbons in "Chocolat" or rescuing abroken soul (touchingly portrayed by Serbian director Kusturica) in "Saint-Pierre."

Auteuil, who played the knife thrower in Leconte's "The Girl on the Bridge,"embodies recklessness as he gallops on horseback over the barren sea cliffs withthe Atlantic thrashing below. Though Leconte does not shy away from symbolism, neither is he the sort to wallow in it. He tells his stories with a cool eye, whether his camera is turned onrustling linens or a rusty guillotine.

"The Widow of Saint-Pierre" (110 minutes) in French with subtitles, rated R for sexuality and brief violence.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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