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'Widow of Saint-Pierre. The'

Complex characters of 'Widow' caught in sharp dilemma

Friday, April 13, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The inevitability that settles in like the thick North Atlantic fog over "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" is so grim that, by movie's end, you may feel like the title character in director Patrice Leconte's previous film, "The Girl on the Bridge." She wanted to jump off.

'The Widow Of

RATING: R, for a scene of sexuality and brief violence.

STARRING: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica.

DIRECTOR: Patrice Leconte.



This, finally, makes Leconte a serious filmmaker in the eyes of some critics -- in the same way a comic actor has to score in a dramatic role in order to be considered Oscarworthy.

It's too late to convince such people that comedy is generally more difficult to perform than tragedy. Call me contrary -- OK, you're contrary -- but part of me wishes Tom Hanks had won his first Academy Award for "Big," which employed his comedic talents, rather than for "Philadelphia," which denied them.

Similarly, I think back fondly on the delightful quirkiness and emotional fullness of an early Leconte film like "The Hairdresser's Husband." Whereas I suspect I'll just shudder at the chilly memory of the "The Widow of Saint-Pierre," for all its maturity of theme.

By no means am I suggesting this is a bad movie -- far from it. Leconte and screenwriter Claude Faraldo present us with three main characters whose interior feelings and motivations are rich and complex but remain just out of our grasp in the subtle performances by Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil and Emir Kusturica.

The movie is just suggestive enough to let us speculate at the reasons for the choices they make, which would appear to be of the highest importance. But it appears they come to realize that, ultimately, it doesn't matter at all.

Just who is the widow of Saint-Pierre, a remote French island territory off the Newfoundland coast? There are several candidates, one of which is mechanical -- the guillotine (the widow, in French slang) that has been requested by the island's governing council to carry out an execution.

The condemned man, Neel Auguste (Kusturica), murdered someone while under the influence of alcohol. Everyone seems properly horrified by the crime, but the authorities are at a loss at how to proceed without a guillotine and an executioner, both of which have been requisitioned from overseas. It will be a long wait.

Neel is placed in the custody of the island's military commander (Auteuil), referred to only as The Captain. He is married to the gorgeous Pauline (Binoche), known by most as Madame La. He is so deeply in love with her that he will refuse her nothing, including the opportunity to rehabilitate the prisoner.

She succeeds too well, but even though he changes, his sentence doesn't. At this point, the town council is more interested in saving face and upholding its authority than in administering anything resembling justice.

Through it all, Neel largely keeps his own counsel. He is grateful, and he must be aroused by Madame La although he would never act on it. But she doesn't control him. As for the Captain's wife, she is another in a long line of Leconte characters who are stimulated, sexually or otherwise, by the prospect of death or the proximity of sharp blades.

In "The Hairdresser's Husband," it was the man who insisted on marrying a hairdresser because of the sexy woman who cut his hair as a child. In "Girl on the Bridge," the jumper is saved by a knife-thrower who uses her as his target. She was going to kill herself anyhow, so what did she have to lose?

Everyone hopes the guillotine will never arrive. If not, that the authorities won't find an executioner. If not, that Neel will run away. If not, that the Captain will refuse to cooperate. If not ...

Well, there's always a bridge somewhere.

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