[Written for The Stranger]
In 1849, on Saint-Pierre, a French-ruled island off the Newfoundland coast, two sailors rescued from the thickest winter fog in memory celebrate their deliverance by getting drunk and killing a man as a kind of stupid prank. One is sentenced to die; the other isn’t but dies anyway through a stroke of dumb luck. The survivor, Neel Auguste, has to be kept alive through the following spring because, unlike in the old days, the authorities can’t just shoot him or hang him. The law demands death by guillotine — “the widow” — and the nearest one is far to the south, in Martinique.
While waiting out the guillotine’s slow but inexorable transport through the intervening latitudes, the hulking Neel is taken under the wing of “Madame La” Pauline, wife of the captain of the garrison. He helps her build a miniature greenhouse amid the snow and stone walls; she begins teaching him to read. A kind of love, powerful and unspoken, grows between them. Between Neel and the community, too, for Neel is a decent fellow at heart, and even performs a spectacular act of heroism. But the local authorities do not rejoice in his manifest rehabilitation; they find it a nuisance. The execution must go forward, even though the man they will be “topping” is no longer the man they sentenced.
That description should suggest why The Widow of Saint-Pierre will be clasped to many a liberal bosom as an exemplary arthouse film. You couldn’t ask for a more ready-made parable — based on the historical record, yet — of the horror of the death penalty, the inhuman machinery of the state (the governor and his cronies are only the local reflection of a repressive régime leery of uprising back in France), and the grandeur of the human spirit (not only that of the reformed Neel, but also of his benefactress and her ramrod-straight, unflinchingly devoted husband). Of course, such an outline leaves ample room for the picture to be a tiresome, pietistic screed. The Widow of Saint-Pierre isn’t that. But no plot summary can suggest what an artful, deeply mysterious movie it is.
For one thing, there’s the uncanny tension between the conventions of the meticulously mounted historical film and the nervous modernity of its realization. Director Patrice Leconte — whose previous film was the glinting black-and-white comedy of chance and obsession, The Girl on the Bridge — and cinematographer Eduardo Serra(Wings of the Dove) filter their period narrative through a mobile visual style that suggests a less hippie-dippy version of Lars von Trier. The handheld camerawork indexes both the precariousness of human existence, clinging to the bleakly beautiful rock that is Saint-Pierre, and the personal intimacy of the drama. Neel is led into the garrison yard for the first time, and the camera, rocking ever so slightly as it frames Pauline registering his arrival, allows us to notice (but doesn’t insist) that she has just transferred a fragile green sprig to a flowerpot. The link between her nurturing what little life and beauty she can manage and her adoption of the prisoner as a subject for redemption is scarcely worth the words needed to announce it; the point, the beauty of the moment, is that it simply exists.
The same principle of glancing connection and unstressed reverberation controls Claude Faraldo’s fine, spare screenplay. The captain and his wife have frequent opportunities to declare their mutual love — a full-blown, breathtakingly sustained passion beyond the dreams of any historical romance writer — but the most remarkable communications between them, and indeed between Pauline and the prisoner, are either coded or left unsaid. Early on, Pauline admonishes Neel that if he were to escape, it’s her husband who would pay with his life. Neel replies that she need have no fear; what he means, but doesn’t articulate, is that his own sense of responsibility would never allow him to contemplate such a thing. Yet as the execution draws nearer, Pauline becomes determined that the strong-armed Neel must row to nearby English-held Canada and escape. And on the day she wills it to happen, her husband reads it in her eyes and consents — all without either having mentioned it.
Screenwriters and directors can go a long way toward plotting such evanescent transactions. It remains for a cast to make them true. Pauline is almost too ideal a role for Juliette Binoche; with her hieratic beauty and profile like the prow of a sailing ship, she’s a totem of righteousness. But the actress also gives Pauline an inspired, nearly hysterical purity of emotion, so that at moments of delight and discovery she erupts into an astonished giddiness. Making his acting debut as Neel, the acclaimed Yugoslavian filmmaker Emir Kusturica (Underground) has been shrewdly accorded the protection of judicious silence much of the time, but his authority and self-possession recall the reticent power of Sam Shepard’s screen-acting bow in Days of Heaven. Still, the performance that will leave you awestruck is Daniel Auteuil’s as the captain, a man of such fierce integrity that, given a choice between death and dishonor, he recognizes no choice whatsoever.