Combustible Celluloid
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With: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica, Michel Duchaussoy, Philippe Magnan
Written by: Claude Faraldo
Directed by: Patrice Leconte
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of sexuality and brief violence
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 112
Date: 03/18/2013

The Widow of St. Pierre (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Heads Over Feelings

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Patrice Leconte's The Widow of St. Pierre opens with a long tracking shot, moving slowly... ever so slowly... toward a heartbroken Juliette Binoche staring out of a window, her wonderful, extraordinary face barely lit by the grayness outside. Though we don't know it yet, she has just lost everything.

The title of Leconte's film partially refers to a guillotine (sometimes called a "widow" in French). On a small French island territory in 1850, two men commit a crime. It's basically a drunken brawl, but someone dies and someone else gets the blame. The criminal, called Neel Auguste, is played by film director Emir Kusturica (Arizona Dream, Underground, and Black Cat, White Cat) in his acting debut. He's sentenced to be "chopped," but this small island does not have a guillotine, nor an executioner. A guillotine must be ordered and an executioner must be hired.

In the meantime, it's up to the Captain (Daniel Auteuil, also in Leconte's Girl on the Bridge) to look after the prisoner. But his strong-willed and big-hearted wife, Madame La (so called because of the heavy military population on the island´┐Żyou can't call her "Madame La Capitaine") played by Binoche, puts him to work instead. At first he builds a greenhouse for her but soon begins fixing leaky roofs for the neighbors and performs other odd jobs. The townsfolk soon come to love him, especially after he single-handedly saves a pub and its owner from disaster.

In Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), Nancy Olson tells William Holden that she thinks "a picture should say a little something." Here Leconte slyly uses his story to say a little something about the death penalty. Every once in a while, he shows us the town's political heads who insist on Neel's execution, meeting and drinking brandy in their warm secret rooms. They're afraid of looking silly or lenient if they let him live, never mind that it's the right thing to do. They're too wrapped up in the 19th century's version of red tape.

Leconte easily puts us in his pocket with this scheme. Scene after scene, he slowly raises our hopes that right will triumph and that Neel will be allowed to live. Most of the suspense comes from waiting for the guillotine to arrive and finding an executioner. Leconte even runs the ship containing the infernal machine aground just to buy a little more time and suspense. Heroically, it's Neel himself who helps bring it to dry land.

Indeed, Neel is the only one who seems resigned to the truth. Kusturica plays him with a minimum of words and a huge store of heart. His soft eyes and giant, scruffy exterior constantly play at odds with each other, just opposite of the film itself with a hard life lesson at its center.

Leconte shoots the film in beautiful widescreen, emphasizing natural wintry colors, grays, blues, and light greens. He often goes with hand-held cameras, but when the moment really counts, he keeps it still. That opening shot and its matching closing shot for example; when it comes right down to it, Leconte understands that Binoche's face tells all the story we need.

The Widow of St. Pierre is an accomplished film and manages to tell its story well despite the lecture. Many filmmakers (like the late Stanley Kramer) insist on message over filmmaking and the result is nothing but a sermon. This time beauty and honesty are in there too.

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