Patrice Leconte (1947-) is a French director and writer known for such films as The Girl on the Bridge (1999) and Man on the Train (2002). Much underrated, he is also the one who directed a historical drama-comedy and Academy Award-nominee Ridicule (1996), as well as an outrageous, black humour-suffused animation The Suicide Shop (2012). Below is my review of his historical drama based on a true story The Widow of Saint-Pierre, starring Juliette Binoche.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre  – ★★★★
“Look, examine, reflect. You hold capital punishment up as an example. Why? Because of what it teaches. And just what is it that you wish to teach by means of this example? That thou shalt not kill. And how do you teach that “thou shalt not kill”? By killing.” Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Plea Against The Death Penalty
There is this disturbing scenario in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit (1956): a rich and influential woman has arrived in one small village and is bribing her way to ensure that one particular citizen of that village is sacrificed – literally. Echoes of this intriguing turn of events are also found in this film set in the year 1850 in France, but, instead of this “Grande Dame” of Dürrenmatt’s play, there is another “dame” arriving in this film story – the guillotine. The story location is the island of Saint-Pierre, French Overseas Republic, and two men stand trial for the murder of another, one of them being August Néel (Emir Kusturica), who is sentenced to death. Eccentric Captain Jean (Daniel Auteuil) takes charge of this condemned prisoner, but the execution is not coming any time soon because the island does not have a guillotine or an executioner. In the meantime, the wife of the Captain, “Madame La” (Juliette Binoche), establishes ties of friendship with Néel. Madly in love with his wife, the Captain, who must also be in charge of the execution, allows this kind relationship to develop, and Néel becomes a gardener and a reformed man. It is this battle between “the heart and the duty”, which sets the scene for the oncoming tragedy.
The film is based on a true story of sailor Joseph Auguste Néel, as dramatised by Marine Saglio-Bramly in her book The Widow of Saint Pierre (1999), and the title of the film is a play on words since the word “widow” in French also designates a guillotine. Juliette Binoche is an intuitive actress who can show utmost sympathy without even saying a word, and the film benefits from this talent and her presence immensely. Whether caring for a disfigured pilot in film The English Patient (1996), or standing up for an ostracised “pirate” in Chocolat (2000), her previous characters possessed that uncanny openness and intuitive understanding of the plight of another (often an “underdog”) which turned these films into the moving studies of bravery, self-sacrifice and/or compassion. We witness the same thing in The Widow of Saint-Pierre, as Madam La takes the reins to show the world that even convicted murderers can change, and a humanistic thread runs through the narrative.
From The Return of Martin Guerre (1982) to Queen Margot (1994), there are many French historical dramas that are so preoccupied with establishing a “historical feel” and all the action, that they often pay scant attention to the depth of character studies. And, this character superficiality would have also befallen The Widow of Saint-Pierre if not for the sheer stoicism and quiet dignity which all three main leads (Binoche, Auteuil, Kusturica) convey with such ease in the film, producing a historical portrayal which is both touching and convincing, despite some unbelievable events. This delicacy and the performances are also what keeps the melodrama at bay, and the symbolism of flowers and a black stallion, associated with the Captain, speak to the audience. The latter (black stallion) in particular may stand for a free spirit that would not submit to any rules of propriety or the merciless arm of the law when one’s moral compass and doing what one feels right in one’s heart are involved. When the guillotine is finally on the island, the film starts to blossom like plants in Madame La’s garden: the feelings of love turn agonising as the end draws near.
Patrice Leconte, whose direction is interesting, with inventive shots used effectively to dramatise the most important scenes, also makes good use of the location (even if the film was actually shot in Louisbourg and Cap-Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, rather than in Saint-Pierre), and the visuals also impress: the sombre imagery showing grim, snowy weather mirror the growing communal depression.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre may not reach the heights of a truly Dostoevskian tale of redemption and the prisoner Néel is hardly akin to Hugo’s unjustly wronged Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. However, there are ample compensations: the film’s undeniable emotional core, absurdist undertones, resolute performances, as well as the beauty of the cinematography all still make The Widow of Saint-Pierre a memorable film.
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Excellent review. I enjoyed learning more about this film, and it’s underrated director, Leconte. Sounds like it draws from a lot of good literary / philosophical sources.
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Thank you, and yes, it grows on you. Thanks for stopping by!