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French director Patrice Leconte is a chameleonic talent: Among his films to reach American screens are the psychological thriller Mr. Hire, the period satire Ridicule, and the offbeat comic romance The Girl on the Bridge. But in truth all Leconte's films are romances at heart, though they are often complex and unclear in who loves whom and how and why. (His scathingly nasty, arguably misogynistic Tango might well be considered an antiromance, which may explain why it's never been released in the United States.)
His latest film, The Widow of Saint-Pierre, is, like most of the above, a romance and something else at the same time -- a film with political and moral questions at its heart. Loosely based on a true story, The Widow of Saint-Pierre is set in the mid-19th Century on a tiny French island near Newfoundland. The title is ambiguous: It might refer to the narrator, Madame La (Juliette Binoche); it might refer to another of the female characters; it might refer to the guillotine that is central to the story. (In the slang of the time, we are told, the guillotine was referred to as "the widow.")
One night two drunken sailors, Neel (the great Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica, in his acting debut) and Louis (Reynald Bouchard), decide that the only way to determine whether a recent shipmate is fat or merely big ("gras" or "gros") is to cut him open. Because, not unexpectedly, he dies from this little experiment, the sailors are convicted of murder.
Neel, having wielded the knife, is sentenced to die, but there is a major problem: Saint-Pierre is such a remote outpost with such a small population that it has neither a guillotine nor an executioner. The authorities have no alternative but to hold Neel until these deficiencies are remedied.
The prisoner is remanded to the custody of the captain (Daniel Auteuil) of the local military attachment. Both the Captain (as the film mostly refers to him) and his wife, Madame La, are what we might call, in modern terms, liberals. Impressed by the prisoner's remorse and calm demeanor and appalled by the dark, dank cell in which he's kept, Madame La sets him to work in the garden and then begins to teach him to read. Soon Neel is enjoying nightly intimate visits with one of the local widows and winning the respect of the townspeople, who earlier had tried to stone him to death. When he bravely rescues one of the women from a horrible accident, he becomes the most respected man on the island. While the Captain, Madame La, and the rest of the residents are determined to prevent Neel's execution at any cost, the local officials view such resistance as an insult, if not a direct defiance of their authority. They push France to provide for the execution as soon as possible.
At many moments The Widow of Saint-Pierre threatens, ever so briefly, to turn into a tract against capital punishment. But Leconte is, as always, more interested in the passions than the ideas; he cares about the feelings behind the characters' ideology and how these feelings define them.
Passion is central to the story, and some of Madame La's passions remain intriguingly undefined. As soon as she takes Neel in as her protégé and starts being seen around town with him, often when her husband is away, everyone assumes an affair. The gossip quickly turns ugly. But Leconte repeatedly makes it clear that the Captain and his wife are devoted to each other, romantically, sexually, and intellectually. Still, he doesn't pretend that there is no sexual tension as Madame La huddles with Neel in the dark, teaching him to read. And her reaction when she realizes he is interested in someone else is curious and (one can't avoid the word) ambiguous. The Captain so knows her and loves her that he is there to support her, even as he senses a part of her belongs to another man.
Some of the central dramatic material here is reminiscent of Melville's Billy Budd. Neel is not precisely the pure innocent that Billy Budd is, but there is something almost otherworldly in his honest good nature and calm. As Neel, Kusturica has such a powerful screen presence that it's startling no one has thought to use him as an actor before. His charisma is part of what makes us accept the rapid change in the townspeople's attitudes.
Leconte and cinematographer Eduardo Sarra also make clear the extent to which the physical setting defines the events, the characters, and the local values. The island is not merely remote; it's a beautiful, rocky wasteland, gorgeous to look at and cruelly unfit for cultivation. Jokes are made about how the landscape is without trees. Saint-Pierre is an outpost for people who have no option but to be there; given a choice few would pick it as a permanent residence.
In the end this is a romance with three characters, a story in which not all the affections are (in the usual sense) "romantic." Madame La, Neel, and the Captain are all earnest and heroic, following their consciences, even if doing so means destruction. To identify with them and accompany them is a cathartic journey toward an inevitable but noble doom.
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