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Juliette Binoche, perhaps the most unlikely (and most undeserving) Best Actress nominee in recent memory, does a full 180° with her latest film, The Widow of Saint-Pierre. In the dazzlingly overrated Chocolat, Binoche played Vianne, a woman with some serious man issues. She was always either running away from the opposite sex, or helping other women to do the same. But in Widow, her character is a firm believer than even the most vile man can change under the right circumstances.
Binoche plays Pauline, a resident of tiny Dog Island off the coast of Newfoundland, which was a French territory at the time the film is set (1849). She's married to a Parisian man named Jean (Daniel Auteuil, Girl on the Bridge), who is referred to simply as The Captain by the rest of the island's crusty inhabitants. Note: In case you're unfamiliar with French cinema, the presence of Binoche and Auteuil in the same film is a little like seeing Brad and Julia in The Mexican.
One morning, the residents of Dog Island awake to a grisly scene. It seems the evening before, two fishermen cut up their boss to settle a drunken argument (one thought the man was fat, and the other merely big). The town, of course, is outraged, the men are quickly tried, and the Powers That Be declare the man who did the cutting should lose his head, while his cohort is sentenced to a life of hard labor (he dies shortly after transport).
The problem is that Dog Island has neither an executioner nor the means to perform an execution. They order a guillotine from Paris, but it won't arrive until the following spring. In the meantime, Pauline decides the surviving prisoner, Ariel Neel Auguste (played by the great Yugoslavian filmmaker Emir Kusturica), should be rehabilitated. She excuses his drunken actions, letting Auguste live in her house and help her with her greenhouse. Pauline even gives him intimate reading lessons, and none of it seems to bother Jean, who seems to like his horse even more than his wife. Does Pauline have tingly feelings for Auguste, or is she just another left-wing crybaby?
When spring finally rolls around and the guillotine arrives, Dog Island has become quite attached to their wonderful prisoner, at which point Widow becomes kind of a preachy, anti-death-penalty film. If somebody wanted to watch one of those, they'd rent The Chamber (and judging from its box office take, nobody does). Claude Faraldo's script just isn't that interesting, especially compared to director Patrice Leconte's last film, the wonderfully original Girl on the Bridge (Leconte is becoming the John Sayles of France, picking drastically different projects each time around). The highlight here is the lovely photography from Eduardo Serra (Unbreakable).
Binoche is nearly good enough to make you forget how ridiculous Chocolat was, and Auteuil clocks in with another typically strong and stoic performance. Kusturica does well, especially for a first-time actor (he recently directed the arthouse hit Black Cat, White Cat). As an aside, Widow is the first of two imports we'll see this year that show prisoners being rehabilitated through gardening. The other, due this summer, is called Greenfingers and stars Croupier's Clive Owen as a convict with a green thumb.
1:52 - R for a scene of sexuality and brief violence
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