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The ancient Greeks, gifted with an abstract way of thinking that was always
trying to come down to earth and clothe itself with the commonplace
occurrences of everyday life, did not have one all-embracing term for love,
a we do, but broke it down into four types: affection (storge), friendship
(phileo), sex (eros) and charity (agapao). And probably not since the
ancient Greeks has a love story come along which not only divides love into
its four types, but also weaves them, with enormous skill, into a single
story. The Widow of Saint-Pierre is a love story of the tragic Greek
proportions. It's an enormously beautiful movie, a story that gains power
with every viewing. And for that reason, it's one of the most remarkable
videos I've seen in a very long time.
We've all seen a plethora of films from Hollywood, which basically confine love, and the act of love, to eros. We all know the well-worn script. But what would it look like to view a film in which a relationship expresses all four types of love, and throbbing full force? I would be giving too much away if I were to tell you how these four types of love are rolled up so tightly into a single relationship, but that's exactly what we seen in the liaison between Jean, the Captain (Auteuil) and his wife, Pauline (Binoche). It's intensely interesting, because the performances are pitch-perfect. Even the cowardly bureaucrats, who feel threatened by the captain and his wife, are a picture of cowardly perfection. Their motives are all too human, all too real. But so is the unfathomable love they don't understand, and fear.
One of the things I really appreciate about this film is the way it expresses all forms of love as having boundaries. Jean and Pauline are not clinging vines. What we see is a mature, healthy relationship, each partner respecting the unique characteristics of the other. What a contrast to the infantile clinging vine romances out of Hollywood!
The actions of two men on a drunken spree turns out to be fatal for the
man who is being harassed because he dies as a consequence of a fight
with his two tormentors. Both men are apprehended and condemned to die
as punishment for their actions. The way to die is beheading by
guillotine, or "the widow" in the vernacular.
Thus begins this story that director Patrice Leconte directed, based on the screen play by Claude Faraldo. The story is set in the remote island of Saint Pierre, off the coast of Newfoundland. This is a hostile environment settled by the French. Saint Pierre boasts a lot of widows who have survived the rigors of the climate and the hard lives their husbands led.
Into this milieu we find a military captain and his wife. Both are Parisians and appear to be compassionate, at heart. When Neel, the surviving drunk is brought to be kept in a cell within the military quarters of the island, the wife, Madame La, takes an interest in the man. With her husband's consent, she asks for his help in tending a green house in the premises and other errands.
Neel and Madame La are at simple view, just opposites. The kindness Neel sees in her, transforms him. Madame La even goes to help him learn to read. All these actions don't sit well with the rest of the inhabitants and the people in the government who demand a guillotine is sent over and have him execute the prisoner.
The film works because the brilliant performance of Juliette Binoche, who as Madame La, makes her mark in the picture. Her compassion for Neel is genuine; in her heart she believes this man, a product of the environment in which he was born, shows qualities that no one has seen in him.
Emir Kusturica, a noted film director himself, is also one of the assets of the movie. Mr. Kusturica is a large man with unkempt looks, who is totally believable as Neel. His interaction with Madame La turns from gratitude into a noble love that is not meant to be.
The other principal is Daniel Auteuil who is perfect as the captain, the husband of Madame La, who is outraged by what he perceives to be the wrong punishment for the accused Neel. In spite of the menacing presence of Neel next to his wife, he trusts her as he knows her kind heart belongs to him only.
"La veuve de Saint Pierre" is a great movie that will satisfy viewers in search of a different story. Patrice Leconte has directed with panache as he takes us to see the beauty of Saint Pierre, something that is so bleak, yet it's a place that has a magnetic attraction as we watch the film unfold.
You have to watch the odd foreign film such as this to understand just how far Hollywood has strayed from cinematic honesty. This is a simple, beautifully done, superbly acted piece of theatre set in one of the world's least known places, the fog shrouded French island of St. Pierre, off Newfoundland. It's a simple yet gripping film with an intriguing plot, almost a morality play. There is visceral human drama, much mystery and wonderful soul stirring pathos. And how nice to see a movie without the mandatory Hollywood happy ending. A well spent evening!
I was most impressed with the visual language of this movie that does not
waste words to show emotions. The tensions are well reflected in the play of
the actors, whose gestures, shrugs and smiles say more than a thousand
Another interesting feature of the movie is that it does not follow the easy path of romance that is "expected" by the public. In turn, it exposes a world which is cruel, unfair, where justice is determined by personal interests and where those who fight the system are seen as mad and excluded from the "high society".
It is a movie about the determination to fight for something one believes in!
THE WIDOW OF ST.-PIERRE may not be a great film, but amidst a crop of
mediocre current releases, it's a fine effort that boasts a hardworking
cast, awesome costumes and sets, terrific cinematography and excellent
direction. For those unlikely to stay in and read MOBY DICK, the combination
of austere location, mid-19th-century maritime theme, and the Reaper looming
o'er the ocean tides offers a satisfying divertissement on a cloudy Sunday
Based on actual court records, the plot begins after a Parisian military captain, Jean (Daniel Auteuil), and his new wife, Madame La (Juliette Binoche), arrive on an isolated French isle off the coast of Newfoundland, where widows outnumber balmy days 50 to 1. One night, two blind-drunk men brutally knife a man to find out if he's `fat or just big.' The court sentences instigator Neel Auguste (Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica) to death by guillotine, `the widow,' in French parlance. But the remote fishing island does not possess the instrument of destruction that its French rulers dictate and must obtain a loaner from Martinique. While awaiting its arrival, the government locks Neel in a dark cell and entrusts him to the care of the Captain and Madame La.
An MSW waiting to happen, Madame has a weakness for `desperate cases.' She asks Neel to build her a greenhouse and tend her plants, a challenging request in this hardscrabble environment. As the Parisian belle negotiates her homesickness and the austerity of her surroundings by cultivating her garden, Neel confronts his own banishment from society and cultivates his compassion. This is one of several lovely parallelisms director Patrice Leconte teases out.
The sexual tension between Madame and Neel, though enacted subtly, is nevertheless palpable. During a reading lesson, their fingers brush while scanning a page. As Neel scarfs down her soup in a mildly bestial manner, she looks on lovingly. And when he asks her why she so nurtures him, she replies, `We change, whatever we do. I am sure of that.'
Meanwhile, the fisherfolks' tongues are wagging-ever cautioning Madame's loving husband about the duo's blossoming relationship. The Captain, however, venerates his wife's `humanism' and trusts her enough not to interfere. He is another wonderful character, both strong and sensitive, passionate in his love of his wife, unwilling to back down in his defense of their collective ideals.
Both Binoche and Kusturica prove more than equal to their roles. Binoche imbues her character with much more depth than that of Vianne in CHOCOLAT. With her limpid brown eyes and achingly empathic face, she elevates this personage to the level of classic tragic heroine. Kusturica, given a part that begs overacting, never wrings out our emotions, yet shows he possesses true remorse for his actions and a heart kinder still than that of his benefactors.
Most memorable is the set. Shot in Nova Scotia and Quebec, the film uses clapboard and stone buildings, often snow-salted, as an apt metaphor for the government's rigidity in refusing to commute Neel's sentence, despite his overwhelming popularity in the village as a doer of good deeds. Clearly the film excoriates capital punishment, with such dialogue as Madame's fervent cry, `They aren't punishing the same man they sentenced!'
This widow's walk proceeds at a leisurely pace, perhaps a mite too slowly for 21st-century attention spans. But overall, if you like a good, dark tragedy, pick a dreary night and go.
As the best of French cinema does so adroitly, "The Window of Saint-Pierre" tells most of it's story laconically with knowing looks and subtle behaviors while the story it tells is a relentlessly plodding drama of unspoken words and the emotions they evoke. "Widow..." is more about integrity, honor, love, and other intangibles than it is about its relatively simple storyline and the characters involved. A beautifully crafted somber film, "Widow..." is recommended for mature audiences because a measure of maturation is required to appreciate all this austere film has to offer.
I have always been a Patrice Leconte devotee. His career in which
incoherence and eclecticism get on well together (perhaps that's why
he's often slated by French critics) is one of the most fruitful you
could dream of, even if French mainstream public often associates his
name with "les Bronzés" (1978), a commercial hit which put him on the
map as well as the actors, the famous troupe of the Splendid and tends
to overshadow the rest of his prolific career which spawned treasures
like "Tandem" (1987), "Monsieur Hire" (1989) or "Le Mari De la
This vehicle "La Veuve De Saint Pierre" (2000) was originally to be directed by another veteran of French cinema Alain Corneau (who sadly shot the insipid "Prince Du Pacifique" that year, perhaps the nadir of his career) but he turned down the role due to disputes with the producers. So, Patrice Leconte inherited the project. His choice was motivated by the desire to work with one of the two main roles, Juliette Binoche (he had teamed up with Daniel Auteuil the previous year for "La Fille Sur Le Pont, 1999)
The title of the film has a double meaning: the "veuve" refers to Binoche after her husband's demise. The opening sequence presents her to us in her mourning garb (Leconte's work is served by lavish costumes). The audience knows that she is the "veuve" and will discover in the long flashback, how she has lost her husband. But a "veuve" is also a slang word for the sinister guillotine and it has a tongue-in-cheek connotation: Saint Pierre unlike France hasn't got a death instrument and must have one. All the time, the island is deprived of a guillotine, it remains a "veuve".
There are clearly two sides. On the one hand, the officers' who govern the island and are die-hards of the death sentence and on the other hand, the private triangle which encompasses Auteuil, Binoche and Kusturica. Between the two poles, the impending threat of the execution with the recurring images of the ship sailing across the Atlantic with on board the guillotine. The scenario eschews the tempting trap of the Manicheism and the officers aren't caricatures. As a matter of fact, one of the main thrusts of the film is to deride the leaders of the island who seek at all costs to keep the death sentence and their obstinacy is made ludicrous by the postpone of the sentence and the last words of the voice over contain grim details which give a slap to one of Doctor Guillotin's famous words: "a painless death is a progress for humanity". Moreover, they prove to be unscrupulous because when a new inhabitant settles on the island, they entrust him the role of the executioner without taking care of his opinion.
In the private triangle, madame La by guiding Neel on the way of redemption is full of condescension and solicitude but she's a complex character. Her reasons and motivations to redeem Neel are rather elusive even if she says (I don't remember the accurate cue): "I think human soul is unpredictable and can be able to become conscientious and intelligent. A little gratifying cue which should have been more construed and fleshed out and remains an inkling. Then, why would she encourage the sacrifice of such a devoted husband to try to save a convicted killer whereas it's doomed to failure? Is it a response to her husband's love? (If Auteuil sacrifices himself it's for love for his wife and respect for Neel). Certainly and if so, Leconte's piece of work is a novel and quirky approach on the relationship between husband and wife, a quite notable feat for an author who has seldom studied this topic in his filmography, except maybe in "Le Mari De La Coiffeuse".
Buoyed by a more than palatable cast with a special mention to Emir Kusturica who was a discerning choice because he could convey vulnerability and fragility to his persona of great strapping man, "La Veuve De Saint Pierre" may be derivative if we consider the theme of redemption and the thrust quoted in the fourth paragraph but its treatment is a far cry from Hollywood's formulaic conventions. How to rank it in Leconte's uneven but usually riveting filmography? It isn't on a par with his towering achievements but stands out as a more than palatable flick which however could have gained by being more deepened.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS! DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE
Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche turn in fine performances in this killer-with-a-heart-of-gold melodrama. But the plot is unrealistic.
Auguste Neel was in fact guillotined in Saint-Pierre in the nineteenth century after waiting months for the means of execution to arrive from Martinique. You can see the guillotine in Saint-Pierre's modern and beautifully designed museum. (Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, a French territory hard by the coast of southern Newfoundland, is an absorbing place to visit; I was there in 1999.)
In the movie, Neel wanders around the island after receiving his death sentence for murder, performing one good deed after another -- some heroic, others mundane, but all saintly. Was the French penal system really so inflexible that no one would commute his sentence despite all his good works, including saving another's life? That's the way it's portrayed.
Neel would have been even more saintly to take the islanders up on one of the many chances they gave him to escape to "les Anglais" (i.e., Newfoundland, 10 miles away across a channel). In the end, his self-imposed martyrdom proves foolish, for it leads not only to his own execution, but to that of Daniel Auteuil's character as well.
Nevertheless, the film is beautifully photographed and the acting is fine. I give it 7 out of 10.
Juliette Binoche plays the wife of a military officer in a remote island town in 1849 Newfoundland who becomes devoted to the cause of saving the life of a condemned murderer. I was torn between admiring `The Widow of Saint-Pierre' for not taking the obvious route of having the captain's wife fall in love with her protege and run off with him (e.g., `Mrs. Soffel"), and a feeling of letdown that it was avoiding opportunities for more vivid and realistic drama. That there is an attraction between the two is made clear, especially in the highly charged, yet muted eroticism of the reading lesson scene. This film was based on a true story, but I couldn't help wondering if the actual killer was as saintly and devoid of guile as he seems in this movie. Among other things, he resists his attraction to his benefactress, although she would probably be more than willing to sleep with him, saves the life of a village woman whose house has slipped its moorings, and passes up an excellent chance to escape because he doesn't want to get anybody in trouble. He impregnates another woman, although it appears to be true love, and he then does the decent thing and marries her. One could accept that a criminal could be redeemed, but here he's a little too good to be true, reinforcing my suspicion that the characterization was meant more to reinforce the filmakers' anti-capital punishment stance than as a reflection of his actual personality. Daniel Auteil as her husband is stuck playing a character whose emotions remain largely inscrutable. The film would have us believe that there is no jealousy or resentment in the husband as his wife dedicates her life to rehabilitating and saving the condemned man under his charge. Ultimately, the captain gives up his own life for both of them, but I kept waiting for a significant sign that he had some inner conflict about doing so. After all, he is a career military officer sworn to uphold the law as it is. Who knew that underneath he was a bleeding heart liberal! This film is interesting and absorbing up to a point, but ultimately, it's also bland and overly complacent dramatically.
In 1849, in the Archipelago of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, the drunken
Ariel Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica) and his partner Louis Ollivier
(Reynald Bouchard) kill for a futile motive (to see if he is fat or
just big) the fishing boat captain Coupard (Michel Daigle). Nell, who
stabbed the victim, is sentenced to die with his head severed in the
guillotine while Louis is sentenced to hard labor. During the
transportation to the prison under the custody of Captain Jean (Daniel
Auteuil), there is an accident and Louis dies. While spending his days
in the cell waiting for the guillotine and the executioner, Neel is
invited by the captain's wife Mrs. Pauline (Juliette Binoche) to help
her in her garden and becomes her protégé. Later he has a process of
rehabilitation helping the locals in minor works and becomes very
popular in the island. When he saves the building Café du Nord and her
owner from sinking in the sea, his popularity increases and nobody but
the governor and politicians of the council wants his death. Neel
marries Eleontine Jeanne-Marie, but sooner he is informed that the ship
Marie Galante has just left Martinique bringing a guillotine. Now the
Governor and politicians need to find an executioner in the population
to execute the sentence.
"La Veuve de Saint-Pierre" is a beautiful dramatization of a story of rehabilitation and intolerance. I do not know whether this event is partially true or not there are references in Internet to this story but in sites that I can not trust but this movie is wonderful. The story and screenplay are engaging and very well written with powerful lines; the direction of Patrice Leconte and the performances are top- notch, with Juliette Binoche extremely beautiful and elegant as usual and showing a magnificent chemistry with Daniel Auteuil; the cinematography and costumes are wonderful. Based on my adjectives, it is unnecessary to say that I loved this movie. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "A Viúva de Saint-Pierre" ("The Widow of Saint-Pierre")
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