Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Director: Patrice Leconte
It's been a week since I saw "The Widow of St. Pierre," and I'm still a little frustrated with it.
I was effectively drawn in to the story, about the wife of a 19th Century French commandant who befriends a death row prisoner in her husband's charge and champions the cause of sparing his life. The story takes emotionally-hooking twists as -- while waiting for a guillotine to arrive from France so the man can be legally executed -- the people of the barren, wintry island of St. Pierre (apparently off the coast of Newfoundland) become so attached to the gentle criminal that no one is willing to act as his executioner.
As you can glean from the title, there are tragic results. What sticks in my craw is the fact that the blame rests with the widow herself (played with poignant, fervent, impulsive intensity by Juliette Binoche). Not that I can blame her. She finds herself in a terrible spot.
Indulged by her worshipping husband (Daniel Auteuil), whom she loves just as deeply in return, the compassionate Binoche is allowed to visit the prisoner (Emir Kusturica), whom she finds to be a virtuous, guileless soul who realizes he made a grave mistake when he committed a murder while in a drunken stupor.
Determined to redeem this man, she takes him on as her protégé, eventually winning such trust from her husband that she's allowed to take the prisoner out into the island village to atone for his sins with handyman works of community service.
As they become loyal friends, a strong bond forms between wife and prisoner, and as the condemned man becomes known to the population at large through his noble and even heroic acts (he saves a woman's life), he becomes a beloved and trusted citizen, and even a husband to an impoverished local who is carrying his child.
Then comes the ship carrying the guillotine, and despite mounting pressure from the provincial government, the captain has come to sympathize with his prisoner and refuses to participate in his execution, leading to charges of sedition and worse.
At the axis of "Widow" is Binoche's ardent performance as the trusting, needfully devoted captain's wife. She and Auteuil, who lends much nobility to his chivalry, have the kind of chemistry together that reveals everything about their constant, blindly romantic relationship without any need for backstory.
Kusturica truly earns the spellbinding sympathy of his benefactress with his performance that begins with the murder, inviting the audience's ire, then reveals his luggish character's openhearted ingenuousness.
Director Patrice Leconte ("Girl on the Bridge," "Ridicule") adeptly portrays the evolving feelings of the people of St. Pierre, whose acceptance of the prisoner is very gradual. He shoots the film in beautiful, cold blues, golds, and silvers. But he's a little too enamored of using hand-held cameras, which serves only to shake the viewer out of the period mindset.
And that brings me back to my only other issue with "The Widow of St. Pierre," which is that I would have acted so very differently (and more sensibly, in my opinion) had I been in these characters' shoes, that I had a hard time accepting and commiserating with their actions. But this is a personal obstacle, not a criticism of the film. If you're not inside my head, you probably won't find it a problem.