La veuve de Saint-Pierre

cast: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica, Michel Duchaussoy, and Reynald Bouchard

director: Patrice Leconte

112 minutes (15) 2000
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Park Circus DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Ian Sales

La veuve de Saint-Pierre

Although the DVD packaging for La veuve de Saint-Pierre (aka: The Widow Of Saint-Pierre) prominently features Juliette Binoche, the widow of the title is actually a reference to the guillotine. Saint-Pierre is a small island off the coast of Newfoundland and, in 1849, was a French colony. Le Capitaine (Daniel Auteuil) is the commander of the local garrison, a man very much in love with his wife, known as Madame La (Binoche).

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While drunk, a pair of sailors brutally stab and kill their captain. They are caught, tried and sentenced. Ollivier (Reynland Bouchard) will be transported, but Auguste (Emira Kusturica), who actually wielded the knife, will be executed. En route to the prison, the wagon carrying the prisoners runs out of control when the townsfolk throw stones at it. It crashes and Ollivier is killed.

Survivor Auguste is imprisoned under the charge of Le Capitaine, while the island’s governor sends off to France for a guillotine and an executioner. Madame La decides to make Auguste a ‘project’: she wants him to help her build a garden in the fort. He agrees – his execution is likely to be many months away. Subsequently, Madame La enlists Auguste as a helper, assisting her in her good deeds around and about the colony: fixing roofs for the poor on Dog Island, clearing snow from roads in the town, and so on. The more Auguste becomes a familiar figure working around the colony, the more popular he becomes (Madame La has made him swear off drink and, sober, he proves to be a pleasant man, if somewhat unexcitable). This popularity vexes Saint-Pierre’s governor (Michel Duchaussoy), who recognises that the longer it takes for the guillotine to arrive, the harder it will be to execute Auguste…

The Widow Of Saint-Pierre is a beautifully-shot, if (appropriately) a somewhat glacially-paced historical movie. While it provides a fascinating insight into a particular period of French colonial history, it is not without its flaws: the pacing for one thing. It takes at least half of the film’s 112 minutes for the story to really kick into gear. Also, the French penchant for putting relationships front and centre means that Le Captaine and Madame La often dominate the story. But it is Auguste, and his transformation, which is the point of La veuve de Saint-Pierre; it is the moral conundrum presented by the planned execution of a good and popular man, despite the crime he has committed. Auguste, however, has been rehabilitated – he is living proof that the death sentence is immoral. Further, his continued existence is an embarrassment to Saint Pierre’s governing council. Sentence has been passed, it must be carried out; it is only the ineffectiveness of the French bureaucracy back in Paris which is delaying matters.

Of course, a guillotine does arrive, as it must for the story to find its resolution. But there is no executioner, and it seems Auguste has had another reprieve. Until, that is, a new arrival is blackmailed into accepting the position. At which point, Le Captaine turns on the governor and refuses to perform his duty and assist in the execution. The governor promptly reports him to Paris for sedition.

There’s an inevitability to the story of La veuve de Saint-Pierre, an inescapability not helped by the opacity of Madame La’s motives or the inexpressibility of Serbian director Emir Kusturica as Auguste. Indeed, for much of the film both are ciphers – Auguste a mindless but benign ogre; and Madame La presented as both rehabilitator and unapologetic user of Auguste’s labour. Le Captaine is equally enigmatic, his place in the story seemingly defined by his relationship to his wife. On several occasions, he threatens violence – a duel; ‘satisfaction’ – to those who question his wife’s actions with Auguste. Initially, he is firm in his desire to do his duty and escort Auguste to the scaffold. But as the film progresses, so does his motivation grow increasingly cryptic, until it’s impossible to determine if his defence of Auguste, and refusal to be involved in the execution, is in response to the governor’s actions, his wife’s desires, or his own moral compass. He is an unsatisfactory character.

For all that, the cinematography is excellent, and the period is evoked with impressive realism. The Widow Of Saint-Pierre is a slow film, but it is entertaining. It just doesn’t seem entirely sure what it is saying.