The Widow of Saint-Pierre
(La Veuve de Saint-Pierre)

directed by Patrice Leconte
(Lions Gate, 2000)

It's Saturday night in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, a French colony off the coast of Newfoundland, circa 1949. The locals are drinking, dancing, singing and, of course, arguing.

One argument in particular has particularly far-reaching repercussions. Louis Ollivier (Reynald Bouchard) and Ariel Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica) row to a nearby island to carve up a fellow villager simply to determine if he's "big" or "fat." Quickly tried, Ollivier gets life and Auguste gets death, though in an ironic twist of fate, Ollivier is killed when the wagon returning them to prison overturns under a barrage of stones.

And it might have been all over for Auguste, too, had Saint-Pierre had a guillotine, France's official method of execution. But the island did not, forcing local officials to send for one -- without the benefit of overnight delivery.

But The Widow of Saint-Pierre is less the story of a senseless killing than a look at the lives of three extraordinary individuals. Auguste might have committed a senseless crime that cost a man his life, but he carries within him a sense of honor that puts all the local officials to shame.

Still, that sense might have gone unnoticed, had it not been for the interference of Pauline, a.k.a. Madame La, the wife of Saint-Pierre's captain of the guard. Madame La (Juliette Binoche) is a one-woman penal reform system who decides that rather than letting Auguste languish in his cell for months until the guillotine arrives, he should have the opportunity to do some useful work. And before he's done, he's built a greenhouse, fixed roofs, shoveled snow and begotten a child with a villager.

But Madame La's penchant for humanity would have had very little room to roam in Saint-Pierre had it not been for the unflinching support of a most powerful ally, her husband (Daniel Auteuil), the Captain, who takes on the entire governing board of Saint-Pierre, even when it means risking his own life.

The Widow of St. Pierre brings together powerful acting; a riveting, true story of extraordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances; and some of the most beautiful, understated camerawork ever to hit the screen.

From the opening shots of the fog off Newfoundland to the fairy-tale-esque images of the Captain riding his new horse through the snow on Saint-Pierre, The Widow has a look that's hard to turn away from. And if it's irony you like, all you need is the scene in which Auguste goes from despised death-row prisoner to local hero by saving the life of a townswoman -- and the Cafe du Nord -- while on work detail.

Binoche and Auteuil have amazing chemistry, and with Kusturica, they make as strange a menage a trois as a viewer could ask for. In a time when people like to throw around the phrase "Think out of the box," The Widow is a remarkable look at the consequences awaiting those who actually do.

A caution for foreign film-phobes: Yes, The Widow has subtitles. Yes, you will have to read the lines. More importantly, you will often have to read between the lines. But take the time. The Widow of Saint-Pierre just might turn out to be the best film you've ever read.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 13 July 2002

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