aka THE WIDOW OF SAINT PIERRE
Movie Review by Ellie Buchanan
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica
Director: Patrice Leconte
La Veuve de Saint-Pierre is a classic French film of many levels. Directed by Patrice Leconte and immaculately photographed by Eduardo Serra, it is set in the Second French Republic , just off the east coast of Canada on the remote island of Saint-Pierre halfway through the nineteenth century.
Following a drunken argument as to whether one of the islanders is fat or just big, two fishermen put their theories to the test and stab the man to death. They are sentenced to the guillotine (known colloquially as La Veuve, or The Widow), but one is killed in a mob-fuelled accident before he even reaches jail. The other, Neel Auguste, played by Emir Kusturica, develops a relationship with his jailor, the Captain of the garrison (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife, Madame la Capitaine (Juliette Binoche), who is known universally as Madame La.
The bulk of the story takes place as the islanders, who do not have a guillotine, wait for one to be sent by the French government. As they wait, Madame La, who believes passionately in rehabilitation and the fundamental decency of the human soul, develops a strong relationship with Auguste, a notion completely supported ? by her liberal thinking husband the Captain, whose compliance puts his own life in danger of the wrath of the authorities. With no particular means of escape, Auguste roams relatively freely around the island and because he has been allowed dignity by his captors he begins to build relationships and earn the respect of the other islanders, who campaign against the local career politicians who want to see the sentence carried out.
The initial play on words with La Veuve and Madame La (La can also, when spelt with a grave accent, mean “there”, and the fatal blade was also known as “Madame Guillotine”) sets up a multi-layered message which is as French as onions. The tragic inevitability of the tale itself is made all the more piquant by the fact it is, allowing for Hollywood gloss and licence, based on true events (which actually happened in the 1920s but screenwriter Claude Farraldo chose to set it earlier “to give it a sense of distance, and to emphasise the time that it would take for a sailing boat to deliver the Guillotine”).
This story?s classical structure forms a strong vehicle with which to highlight the parallels between the microcosm of the island and the macrocosm of the French political situation of the time. The strife for free and fair thinking by the intellectuals and proletariat against the materialism and status-consciousness of the bourgeoisie mirrors perfectly the state of Napoleonic France.
Filmed in Nova Scotia, the breathtaking Canadian scenery makes an impressive backdrop to this flawlessly acted drama. High production values allow the film to achieve maximum impact, as there appears to be nothing impeding the audience?s view of the director?s vision. The English subtitles are good enough to get most of the subtleties of Farraldo?s French dialogue across, and while the musical score might be a bit lush for 1850s Canada, it effectively conveys admiration for the stark, big North American landscape combined with a quintessentially French enjoyment of the process of doom.