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Soul-Stirring 'Widow'

By Michael O'Sullivan
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)
The first thing you'll need to know about "The Widow of Saint-Pierre," a moving new melodrama from French director Patrice ("Girl on the Bridge") Leconte, is that the French word for widow, veuve, is also archaic slang for guillotine. The double meaning lies at the heart of Leconte's sad and beautiful tale, which concerns itself not just with the loss of a loved one, or with death and dying in general, but with justice, redemption and irreversible commitment. And here I'm talking not just about the commitment of the grave but the sometimes irrational commitment of a court to uphold the law, even against logic, as well as the commitment of a man whose allegiance is torn between serving his government and honoring his wife.

Set in 1849, during the Second French Republic, on the French island of Saint-Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland, "Widow" tells the story of Neel Auguste (Sarajevo-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica, making a stunning on-camera debut). Playing a man awaiting execution for a brutal murder committed in a drunken stupor, Kusturica looks like the long-lost brother of actor John C. Reilly. His soulful face, with its bulbous, unhandsome nose and deep-set, hooded eyes, is a map of pain and regret. To its credit, the film never attempts to mitigate his crime. No excuse is offered for the ghastly, almost surreally pointless killing, and Auguste, at least when he sobers up, welcomes his death sentence with open arms.

The problem is this: There is no guillotine or executioner on the small island, and sending away for one to France will take years. In the meantime, Auguste is befriended by the softhearted wife of the French garrison commander, played by the pliant, moist-eyed Juliette Binoche.

Known as Madame La (short for Madame La Capitaine), she enlists Auguste's help in her garden and greenhouse, figuring that as long as he is living downstairs (albeit on death row, as it were), he ought to be put to use. Soon, through her very modern concept of rehabilitation through work, Madame La has him helping out all over town, repairing leaky roofs and various other odd jobs – even, as it happens, getting a local woman pregnant.

Not only is Auguste such a decent sort that he agrees to marry the woman, but he further endears himself to the community by saving the life and property of another resident. By the time a second-hand guillotine arrives from Martinique, there is not a man on the island, including the strong-willed Captain (Daniel Auteuil), willing to drop the blade. In fact, when the ship carrying the instrument of Auguste's death pulls into the harbor with a broken rudder, the condemned is initially the only one to volunteer to tow the stranded vessel to shore.

Is this guy a saint or what?

Actually, as played by Kusturica, Auguste never comes off as anything but a man: flawed but one whose basic goodness is apparent once you get to know him. It's a kind of 18th-century "Dead Man Walking" but with that earlier film's foreground arguments against capital punishment pushed to the background here. Yes, "Widow" makes a forceful case against the death penalty, but unlike "Dead Man," that's only part of the story.

The movie concerns itself to an equal degree with the strange relationship between the Captain and his wife. Strange, that is, only in the level of its intensity, which seems almost too hot, too passionate for the cold, fog-shrouded cod banks in which the film is set. If Madame La seems perhaps a mite too au courant in her willingness to see Auguste's worth as a human being despite the heinous nature of his crime, her husband's willingness to defend her from gossiping tongues (and eventually to come around to her liberal way of thinking, even at the cost of his own career) is equally startling for these times.

On one level, "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" is a film with a subtle but distinct political agenda: Killing of all kinds is wrong. But it's also a love story – several love stories in fact. The emotions between the captain and his wife, between Neel Auguste and his wife, Jeanne Marie, and between Madame La and her doomed protégé are not all of the same degree or quality, but when it comes right down to it, the film asks, how many different kinds of love are there?

"The Widow of Saint-Pierre" (R, 108 minutes) – Contains a stabbing, a stoning death, obscenity and a sex scene.


© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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