The Widow of Saint-Pierre

Apr 11, 2001 at 12:00 am

Set on a French island colony off the coast of Newfoundland in 1850, this new film by director Patrice Leconte (Ridicule, The Girl on the Bridge) is equal parts grand romance, anti-capital-punishment tract and one of those angrily sad stories where the tide of history sweeps over hapless characters. Basing the script on a true incident, scenarist Claude Faraldo juggles its various elements deftly while Leconte gives proper attention to the epic sweep of its Northern landscapes and scenes at sea and, indulging his specialty, casts a painterly eye on imperiled lovers in odd situations.

Events are set in motion when two drunken sailors commit a prank which escalates into murder. One of the sailors, Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica, best known as the director of Underground and Black Cat, White Cat) is condemned to death, but since the small island of Saint-Pierre has no guillotine he must wait several months for one to be shipped from France. During this period he is placed under the custody of the island’s military commandant (Daniel Auteuil), whose wife (Juliette Binoche) takes a proprietary interest in him, which first manifests itself in her wanting him to weed her garden. Soon, he’s doing odd jobs around the village and ingratiating himself with the local inhabitants to the extent that popular opinion turns against his execution, though the powers that be remain adamant.

The movie presents the viewer with a very stacked deck. Kusturica’s Neel is a lovable, shaggy, bear of a guy, Binoche is touchingly kindhearted and the evil local officials are chain-smoking, port-swilling hypocrites and weasels.

Only Auteuil, with his pained but thoughtful gaze, suggests a complex character, though he comes close to being a sensitive, New Age sort of guy, an anachronistic mid-19th century army commandant who has a big heart and goes out on a limb because he loves his wife.

But sometimes it’s a pleasure to be manipulated and it’s a tribute to Leconte’s sure hand that the film’s aggressive shaping of our sympathies doesn’t detract from its visual beauty or the impact of its uncompromising resolution.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.