TORONTO 2000 REVIEW: Stilted "St. Pierre," Leconte's Thrilling Melodrama Lacks Passion
by Eddie Cockrell
(indieWIRE/ 9.15.00) — There’s a complex web of passion, allegiances and honor at the core of “The Widow of Saint Pierre,” the new film from veteran French director Patrice Leconte (“Ridicule,” “The Hairdresser’s Husband“). There’s also a performance of great expressiveness and charisma from acclaimed director Emir Kusturica — in his feature film acting debut — as a poor unfortunate whose single act of drunken violence dooms not only himself, but an honorable officer and his resolute wife as well.
Unfortunately, this skein of emotions is buried in a stilted and clich&etilde;d
approach that leaches the film of virtually all drama and tension,
almost as if it were composed of a series of still photographs that,
while beautiful, remain static and unengaging. Fans of French period
pieces will rejoice at the atmospheric melodramatics on display, but the
movie doesn’t do much to help itself with those on the fence about the
It’s 1850 on the title island, a small, rugged and windswept French
territory off the coast of Canada. The military commandant, Jean (Daniel
Auteuil) and his wife Pauline (Juliette Binoche) enjoy a life of peace
and relative luxury. This existence is doomed when Neel Auguste
(Kusturica), convicted of knifing his former boss in a drunken bet to
find out if the man was fat or just big, is placed under Jean’s custody
until a guillotine can be located and shipped to the island (“widow” is
an old French slang term for the device).
Pauline, however, refuses to believe Auguste is a lost cause, a hunch
borne out by the nearly mute soulfulness and meek demeanor of the
killer. “Men are bad one day and good the next,” she says sensibly. Soon
she has put him to work doing odd jobs for neighbors, all under the
watchful, often bemused but completely smitten eye of her husband, who
apparently would do anything to please her.
As the guillotine makes its way from Martinique across the ocean,
Auguste becomes a hero on the island: he repairs a roof, helps Pauline
build a crude greenhouse (she in turn teaches him to read), and, in the
film’s most thrilling sequence, single-handedly averts a catastrophe by
stopping a runaway pub.
The more the townspeople embrace Auguste, the more apprehensive the
council becomes — and the more quietly determined Jean is to do
everything in his power to impede the progress of the impending
execution. They embark on an intricate game of chess with the man’s
life: a freshly-landed immigrant is forced by the council to accept the
job of town executioner when nobody else will do it, while the captain
refuses to help tow the boat to the dock when the rudder breaks off in
Eventually, however the “widow” arrives and creates another, as the
officer’s conduct in the course of pleasing his wife and preserving the
honor of his convictions has tragic consequences for both of them. So to
Auguste must pay the price for his impulsive acts, with the townspeople
finally powerless to prevent the now-empty justice from coming to pass.
The synopsis sounds thrilling, and in fact the film could have stirred
the blood far more than it does. Yet Leconte, for all the visual beauty
available to him with his actors and locations, seems more interested in
creating tableaux than visceral pictures. For all the passion intended
to reside in their relationship, Binoche and Auteuil are curiously
unaffecting as a couple (the former looks good in period clothing, while
the latter has some dashing sequences astride a black steed). Only
Kusturica, with his hulking presence and soulful eyes, registers any of
the sense of time and place intended for the production as a whole.
Technically the film is polished to a high gloss at the expense of its
veracity: the soundtrack crackles with wood, metal, leather and wind,
while Eduardo Serra‘s wide screen photography offers some genuinely
breathtaking vistas (many of the principal crew members have worked with
Leconte numerous times). That these elements fail to mesh convincingly
is as obvious as it is puzzling.
[Eddie Cockrell is a Maryland-based film critic covering the Toronto
International Film Festival for Variety and nitrateonline.com.]