Like the convict who is guilty of murder in Patrice LeConte’s “The Widow of St. Pierre,” the film itself is guilty of suffocating what could have been three successful plot lines. Still, also like the convict, LeConte’s latest does not deserve a harsh penalty, for it is largely redeemed by its better elements, particularly the acting of Juliette Binoche and the empathetic camera work of Eduardo Serra.
Binoche portrays Madame La, also called Pauline, a headstrong 19th century Frenchwoman whose compassion leads her to befriend a convict awaiting the guillotine. The convict, Ariel Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica), quickly wins over the town through his good deeds. As Madame La and the film itself adopt an unequivocal anti-death penalty stance, the governor does his darnedest to have a guillotine shipped from France and to find a willing executioner.
The breathless charm of Binoche lightens the feeling of the film while giving the audience a character with whom it can relate. She is easily the best drawn character amongst a flock of hastily crafted roles. It seems as if writer Claude Faraldo gave the other characters a few quirks to avoid the stigma of one-dimensionality. For instance, the governor is meant to be villainous, but in a last-ditch attempt at complexity, he has a picnic with his children.
Serra, who worked on four other films with LeConte, complements Binoche’s performance by keeping the camera close to her. We see the world largely through her eyes. Over-the-shoulder shots heighten the feeling of loneliness when Madame La sits at a party while other women gossip about her and her husband, the Captain, Jean (Daniel Auteuil). Rapid cuts between Pauline and Jean, looking at each other across a crowded room, emphasize their attraction for each other.
The love scenes between the couple are also exquisitely rendered. In a moment reminiscent of the poignant shots of lovers in “The Wings of the Dove,” for which Serra received an Oscar nomination, Jean and Pauline literally glow in a pale blue light, with gentle, rapid cuts highlighting their passion. Although Jean doesn’t measure up to Auteuil’s truly passionate knife thrower in LeConte’s “Girl on the Bridge,” Auteuil does well in a standard role.
While their love is palpable, the story of Pauline and Jean’s romance is rather stagnant. LeConte hints at a possible attraction between Neel and Pauline, but nothing ever comes of it. Had LeConte completely omitted the repeated insinuations, perhaps the focus of the film could have been purely political, with the love between Pauline and Jean as a given (for it is necessary to the plot).
Instead, Pauline and Jean constantly reaffirm their love — even the town begins to comment on it — without ever addressing the issue of Neel or evolving in any way. In a later attempt to demonstrate some change, LeConte attempts to infuse Jean and Pauline’s love with the magical realism of the love story in “Girl on the Bridge,” but it seems sudden and misplaced.
Unlike Pauline and Jean, the town and the government are forced to reckon with Neel’s likability. While the townspeople warm to the convict — who is so tame that though he is rarely in his cell he never attempts to escape — the government grows concerned about his popularity, which could hinder the execution. Indeed, the town does everything it can to keep the guillotine off its shores.
Again, Serra has established an empathy for Neel since an early shot of hostile townsfolk throwing stones at the convict. The camera shakes rather violently as Neel cowers under the barrage. Kusturica, a director whose previous on screen roles have been bit parts, sensitively acts the criminal with the heart of gold. He transforms on screen from a drunken killer to a rather loveable oaf who obeys Pauline’s commands and even attempts to learn to read.
When the governor accelerates his campaign to execute Neel, “The Widow of St. Pierre” becomes increasingly political and philosophical. The debate over the death penalty, unfortunately, never takes the forefront and instead vies for screen time with the love story and the reformed criminal angle. What time is spent discussing the death penalty is engaging, particularly as LeConte balances the passion of the commoners with the rationality of the governor, voicing the various opinions throughout a series of escalating skirmishes. The actors’ performances reach emotional climaxes mirroring these conflicts. Kusturica’s is aptly subtle, as is his entire performance, while Binoche displays a necessary dose of vulnerability that preserves her character from the pitfalls of self-righteousness.
Perhaps LeConte sought to film the human experience itself in all its variety with “The Widow of St. Pierre.” In the end, however, it seems that LeConte is content with a subdued love story, a political debate that falls below its potential, and rather generic characters — all in all, a muted human story. At least he does direct his cast to give winning performances, all of which are subtly supported by Serra’s handiwork. By creating a somber mood while allowing moments of lightness, Serra gives the film the texture it needs to depict the human experience, and to save it from the guillotine.