Widow of St. Pierre"
|By Mira Harber
It's 1849 on the windswept isolated French island St. Pierre, situated
off the east coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Two drunken men debate whether
their captain is big or just fat (gras or gros)? They decide to find out
for themselves and tragedy ensues. One of the men is sentenced to life
in a penal colony, and the other is sentenced to death by the guillotine
for their actions. The only problem is that there is neither guillotine,
nor executioner, on the small island. It is while they wait for the guillotine
to arrive that our story takes place. ('widow' is old French slang for
Life on this isolated island has been relatively peaceful and luxurious
for the Commandant Jean (Daniel Auteil) and his beautiful wife Pauline
(Juliette Binoche). This all changes while the convicted murderer Neel
Auguste (Emir Kusturica) awaits his death in the prison adjacent to their
Pauline believes that men have good days and bad days, and that no one
is purely good or evil. She enlists Auguste is a series of labors while
he awaits his death, that includes such efforts as building a greenhouse
and repairing a neighbor’s roof. His most thrilling effort is when he saves
a run-away pub, and becomes an honorary member of that establishment.
This movie is not as simple as it first might seem, a sort of liberal anti-death-penalty,
French weepie - rather it is thought provoking and complex. Like unpeeling
layers of an onion, we discover more and more about the prisoner, his crime,
how he changes, and our own opinions regarding the death penalty.
We know that this man is in fact guilty of the crime that he has committed.
(How of the do you see that in a movie today - guilty as charged?)
Most people when questioned will say that they agree with the death penalty
under certain severe circumstances. But when it comes down to it, who will
drop the blade?
The disgruntled Governor and island administrators lament the fact that
the condemned man is becoming ever more popular - 'next thing you know,
they'll be inviting him home for Sunday dinner'. The more admired Auguste
is, the more they insist that he must be executed as soon as the guillotine
arrives. The problem now is that no one on the island will take on the
job of executioner, so when a poor exiled immigrant arrives on the island
with his family, he is bamboozled into accepting this grizzly work.
The Commandant loves his wife madly, and supports her totally in her efforts
to befriend the condemned man (she even teaches him how to read). The ruling
citizens of the island question her relationship to Auguste, and her besotted
husband hotly defends her honor. When the guillotine finally arrives, The
Commandant refuses to tow the ship that is bearing it into shore. He even
supports his wife's efforts to help the Auguste escape, but to no avail.
This is a complicated story of people who live their lives by their own
moral convictions and, in the end, pay a heavy price for these convictions.
All three principal actors are extremely convincing in their roles, but
the one who really shines is Emir Kusturica (Auguste). This is his first
role on film, usually he is seen behind the camera as a Yugoslavian film
director, but his great, big, hulking presence and soulful eyes are so
commanding and believable that he steals the movie. He is wonderful to
The cinematography is gorgeous - vast, windswept vistas evoke the solitariness
and isolation of life at this time in this place. The director of the film,
Patrice Leconte, is responsible for other French classics such as Ridicule
and The Hairdresser's Husband. He has excelled once again with the
Widow of St. Pierre. It is a must-see film.