(director: Patrice Leconte; screenwriter: Claude Faraldo; cinematographer: Eduardo Sarra; editor: JoĆ«lle Hache; cast: Juliette Binoche (Mme. La), Daniel Auteuil (the Captain), Emir Kusturica (Neel Auguste), Philippe Magnan (Judge Venot), Michel Duchaussoy (the Governor), Reynald Bouchard (Louis Ollivier), Ghyslain Tremblay (Monsieur Chevassus), Catherine Lascault (Jeanne-Marie Malvilain), Maurice Chevit (The Governor’s Father), Dominique Quesnel (Saloon Owner); Runtime: 108; Lions Gate Films; 2000-France)

“It’s a tale about wishy-washy “humanitarianism.” It claims that a brutal murderer if given the opportunity to change, will become rehabilitated if his captors treat him in a loving way.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a ridiculous film. If you think about it, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s a tale about wishy-washy “humanitarianism.” It claims that a brutal murderer if given the opportunity to change, will become rehabilitated if his captors treat him in a loving way. That is something I just find hard to believe always happens (opinions often change, but people (principles) do not). It’s a manipulative film and if you go with the flow of the story and accept the logic presented, then everything is manufactured to make you eschew reason and be persuaded by your blind emotional responses.

This is a middle-brow art film and even though it pretends to offer more, it doesn’t. It should only serve those who go to films to be entertained in the way a vacuous Hollywood film does, where the viewer is expected not to care how ridiculous the story is. What this film does best, is have its stars look good and have a cinematographer, like Eduardo Sarra (Leconte himself did a lot of the filming), make a static film look stimulating by beautifully photographing it. These are diversionary tactics that can easily lull one into just going into a slumber and accepting this contrived film at face value without giving it a further thought.

Patrice Leconte’ (“Ridicule“) latest film “The Widow of St. Pierre” is particularly annoying because it is so smug. It is a film that stacks the deck in the murderer’s favor and could care less about the murder victim. If the film’s aim is to make a case against capital punishment, it succeeds only in making a case for phony compassion. It shows an elitist couple who are isolated from the common people they pretend to love and who act prickly with the people of their own class; they sneer at them but share the same luxurious lifestyle. I’m afraid the filmmaker’s aims are just to make its star cast suck the viewer into believing the film is serious in tackling tough issues because the stars are taking their roles in a serious manner. By taking the moral high ground against capital punishment it, nevertheless, leaves a bitter feeling. Do-gooders generally manage to do more harm than good, and that will prove itself in this film as well. The captain is so devoted and enslaved by the love he has for his wife, that he becomes remiss in his duties and in the end is executed in France for sedition. The widow of Saint-Pierre is Juliette Binoche (In my book, she’s the Julia Roberts of French movies, matching the American in superficial acting techniques).

The story, which is partially based on court records, takes place in 1849 and is set during the French Second Republic on Saint Pierre, a poor fishing French island off the coast of Newfoundland. A senseless murder takes place when two fishermen are drunk and go to the cabin of their former captain. They stand outside and argue if he is big or fat. When he comes outside with a knife to investigate, Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica-Sarajevan film director) knocks the knife out of his hand while Louis Ollivier (Bouchard) holds him. We don’t see what happens as the filmmaker cleverly shifts to a scene showing an army captain’s (Daniel Auteuil) horse being unloaded from a boat — he’s in charge of the garrison on the island.

In the court trial, we hear Neel tell how he picked up the knife and stabbed his victim to death while Louis continued to hold him. Neel is sentenced to be guillotined on the island and Louis is given a long sentence of hard labor in a French prison.

It might be of interest to note, that guillotine is a slang word for “widow” in French.

The local reaction to the murderers is at first harsh, as Louis will die when being transported to prison. The locals chuck rocks at him as he passes them in the street, causing the horses to rear up and throw him off the wagon and onto a rock.

The island has no guillotine and no one willing to be an executioner, so the prisoner rots away in his darkened cell. The captain’s do-gooder wife Madame La (Binoche), gets her husband to allow her to have the prisoner build a greenhouse. He turns out to be a nice man when not drunk and willingly obeys all Madame La’s wishes. She soon has him helping other villagers and doing chores under no supervision. Her husband is so much in love with her, that he allows her to do whatever she wishes. Her reason for helping the prisoner is because she says people change. The men who politically administer the island do not approve of the way he’s treating the prisoner and that he is making them look powerless in the eyes of the island inhabitants, but the captain ignores their malicious gossip and treats them with self-righteous contempt. He further tells them to mind their own business.

The prisoner will meet a widow (Lascault) on Dog Island and have a sexual relationship with her and when she becomes pregnant, he will marry her. In one of the most contrived scenes, the prisoner will rescue the owner of the town’s only saloon as she is rolling down a hill in a wagon transporting her saloon. His popularity on the island will grow immeasurably and by the time France sends the guillotine over a year has passed, and now none of the locals want the popular prisoner executed. But the governor and the judge insist on the execution, believing it will make them look bad in Paris if they don’t carry out the orders.

This is a bourgeois telling of a story about the self-righteous liberal couple wallowing in their comfort and materialism and self-aggrandizing powers. The prisoner is made into a one-dimensional martyr who doesn’t question anything about his situation. His blank look is probably what the director expects from his ideal movie viewer. This is a visually pleasing film; it has nothing more to offer than a make believe tale about real issues and concerns that the film can’t get to because of its own arrogance.

The Widow of Saint-Pierre Poster