Fine French Fare
There are many striking aspects to Patrice Leconte's vivid, powerful film The Widow of St. Pierre, which screens this week at the Miami Film Festival, but the most unusual is the central relationship between a French army officer and his wife -- a marriage based on passion, admiration, intimacy, and trust. While American films and television programs regularly debase married life as dull, restrictive and dysfunctional, trust the French to do the shocking thing: depicting married adults in love -- fiercely, nobly, profoundly.
Leconte's film, based on a historical incident and thoughtfully scripted by Claude Faraldo, takes place in 1850 on the tiny island of St. Pierre, a rough, gloomy French outpost off the coast of Maritime Canada that remains to this day a French possession, the last remnant of a great North American colonial empire. The captain (Daniel Auteuil) commands a military garrison on the rocky isle, populated by rough French fisher folk and a tiny coterie of politicians and bureaucrats who rule their windswept speck of territory with cynical and self-serving civility. Mistrusted by the ruling clique as "odd," the captain is passionately in love with his wife (Juliette Binoche), who is so assertive she is known locally as Madame La, short for Madame La Capitaine. The captain and Madame La maintain a mutual admiration society and neither will brook the sniping and sarcasm from the local notables that envy them. This uneasy equilibrium is unbalanced when a drunken sailor, Neel Auguste (Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica in his acting debut), kills a local man in an inexplicable drunken frenzy. Contrite and remorseful Auguste is sentenced to death and sent to a jail cell under the captain's guard. But the case creates a problem for the island's governor (Michel Duchaussoy): There is no executioner nor guillotine on the island, the method of death required by French law at that time. No islander will do the job, and the nearest guillotine is thousands of miles away in Martinique.
While the island waits for the guillotine (known colloquially as "the widow"), Madame La can't resist meeting Auguste. A firm optimist, she is convinced he is redeemable and wants to help him use his last days productively. At her request he helps repair the roofs of a poor widow and builds a greenhouse to provide flowers for the drab, colorless settlement. The captain, who can deny his wife nothing, looks on protectively, enduring the jeers and jibes of the governor's gang who suggest Madame La's interest in the beefy, shaggy Auguste is something other than altruistic. But their snickering turns to concern when Auguste's patient help and occasional bravery aid the islanders in a myriad of ways. When he becomes the island's most popular resident, they are truly outraged, demanding that the captain do something. He is able to fend them off until the dreaded widow arrives and a volunteer is found to act as executioner. Suddenly Madame La's kindness seems to have brought a terrible choice: whether to obey the senseless law that demands the death of a reformed man or to defy it and help the prisoner escape, thereby endangering those who help him. Thus from a somber, slow-paced opening, Leconte gradually picks up steam and dramatic stakes and moves toward an emotional and highly suspenseful conclusion.
As Madame La, Juliette Binoche delivers yet another resonant heroine torn by great ethical and emotional choices. As with her anguished French-Canadian nurse in The English Patient, her devastated widow in Blue, her haunted temptress in Damage, and her recent turn in Chocolat, she has the rare ability to portray innate decency even in the most ambivalent of circumstances. Here she's perhaps too good, so sure of her idealism that she appears overly trusting of the prisoner too soon. That caveat aside, her performance is a pleasure to watch, and Leconte wisely lets her run with the role, without directorial intrusion. Kusturica provides solid support as the stoic Auguste, the sort of soulful bearlike role that often goes to Gerard Depardieu. Duchaussoy is another plus as the faux-charming governor so obsessed with his public image that he loses the respect of his entire family.
But the real heart of this cast is Auteuil, whose underplayed and apparently emotionless captain belies a great storm of fervent beliefs beneath the surface. Long a stalwart of French cinema (Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring, Queen Margot), Auteuil single-handedly revives a long-lost character type, the noble man of honor. He's so intense, so privately passionate, so potentially dangerous, you have to believe he'd fight to the death for the right reasons, and go to his death to resist the wrong ones.
Leconte, known here chiefly for his 1996 arthouse hit Ridicule, delivers a masterful, balanced film with striking visuals, dynamic performances, and evocative atmospheres. Following his fablelike saga through several seasons, he conjures a tactile frontier world -- the winds and fogs of autumn, the sweeping expanse of frozen winter white, the soggy drip of an early spring thaw. His societal sense, so nimbly on display in Ridicule, is on point once again as the island community becomes bifurcated, ideologically split down the middle about what to do with Auguste. Leconte is aided in no small way by cinematographer Eduardo Serra, whose stunning, colorful work on What Dreams May Come is in startling contrast to this picture, with its stark wilderness landscapes and crowded, murky interiors. Every face seems to be in shadow, even in sunlight, with the characters turned away from the light of day. But the gloom turns to vivid colors as Auguste and his gifts of flowers, kindness, and generosity begin to transform the community.
The result is a fine example of French filmmaking, a story that engages the intellect as well as the emotions: What is the purpose of capital punishment? Can killers be rehabilitated? Should they? When does the law itself become a tyranny? Leconte doesn't offer many answers but he does make his views very clear: that in the end we are known for our ethical choices, that love is to be shared not hoarded, and that, as the captain demonstrates, a life worth living is a life where one acts on one's beliefs.
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