“On condamne quelqu’un, et c’est un autre qu’on punit.”
Writer Claude Faraldo based his script for the film The Widow of Saint-Pierre on a true incident reported on in the records of the island of Saint-Pierre, part of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon — a group of islands located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence administered then and to this day by France. The power of the script proved to be magnetic, due both to the unusual setting and the finely-drawn characters, and quickly attracted the interest of French director Patrice Leconte and actress Juliet Binoche. Canadian and French financing was arranged and shooting began in 1999, taking place in both Nova Scotia and Québec. The completed film was released in 2000 to considerable critical acclaim.
Lions Gate Home Entertainment has now released this very appealing film on DVD in an equally appealing edition.
In 1849, two drunken men commit murder on the island of Saint Pierre and one of them, Neel Auguste, is sentenced to death by the guillotine. The actual execution must wait, however, for there is neither guillotine (known locally as a “widow” — in the sense of widowmaker) nor executioner on the island. They must be sent by boat from France. Pending their arrival, Neel is given over to the custody of the captain who heads the island’s guard. Madame La (Madame La Capitain), the captain’s wife, soon takes on Neel as her protégé and assigns him to work in a greenhouse for her. Neel gradually begins to rehabilitate himself with Madame La’s help and after he prevents the destruction of one of the island’s businesses, public opinion turns in his favour.
The response of the French local administers is decidedly negative, however, as they see their authority being undermined. They press for a quick execution and with a guillotine finally arrived from Martinique, they coerce a new émigré into being the executioner. At the same time, the administration is determined to see the captain and his wife pay for what it views as the two’s negative role in the affair.
The success of The Widow of Saint-Pierre is very much due to one’s acceptance of the isolation of the island and the playing to perfection of the three wonderful main characters. One need also be sensitive to the fact that although the story is a dramatization of a historic event, it is also a thinly disguised statement on the questionable value of capital punishment. In this case it is a punishment that is ultimately unjust not only for the individual originally sentenced, but also for the victims that arise due to its delay.
The isolation of the islands is captured effectively through the seemingly almost constant presence of either overcast or mist and the views of the vast, surrounding ocean, ice-covered in winter and gray and rough the rest of the year. Yet, the islands’ wild beauty always shows through, whether it’s during horseback rides outside the town, a picnic among the grassy rock-strewn fields, or the landing of a rowboat on the rocky shore. One can see why people would live there even though they are isolated from the so-called niceties of modern civilization of the time. Director Leconte has done a fine job in making the scenery come alive, effectively creating a character out of the island itself.
It is the three principal human characters that give the film its real life and vitality, however. Neel Auguste, played superbly by Emir Kusturica (who is mainly known as a Yugoslavian film director), soon proves to be much more than the oafish convicted murderer he first appears to be. As he flourishes under Madame La’s interest in him, he proves to be a sensitive, truly compassionate individual — one who puts his own life at risk to save a woman on a moving building, one who volunteers for a task that will bring his own execution nearer but will also give him cash to support his wife, one whose nobility in the quiet acceptance of his fate accents the lack of nobility in the men who comprise the town’s administration. Much of this goodness seems innate in Neel, but some is a result of Madame La’s influence. There is a bond that develops between the two that, though never sexually consummated, is obviously there emotionally. The scenes where Neel is reading as Madame La encourages him are charged with the tension of the pair’s connection. It would have been very easy for Neel’s character to have become too good to be true, but that is never a danger with Kusturica’s earnest, uncontrived playing of him.
Madame La’s husband, Jean, the captain of the guards (played by Daniel Auteuil, a veteran actor in French film), is at first a rather enigmatic character, and one is unsure how he will react to Neel who will be consigned to his care pending the execution. It soon becomes clear that Jean is also a compassionate man who loves his wife deeply. He accedes to her request to allow Neel to become her protégé and even though he sees the two becoming close, he never wavers in his trust of his wife nor does he falter in supporting her humane treatment of Neel. For taking Neel’s side, he becomes a target of the town’s administrators and soon faces the threat of the ultimate penalty for what they consider to be his virtually mutinous action. Auteuil’s portrayal of Jean is quiet yet powerful and dignified. He makes Jean an exceedingly likable individual and one that Madame La is very fortunate to have as a husband.
Juliet Binoche plays Madame La in a performance of sensitivity and calm that is even better than her work in The English Patient and Chocolat. In the wrong hands, the performance could have descended into bathos, but that is never a danger here. Binoche’s expressive eyes always make Madame La’s feelings clear, but we also sense that she has an inner strength that allows her to remain in control no matter how deeply she is affected. It is only at the end that that control is allowed to falter, and the situation then makes that response entirely appropriate.
A fine supporting cast adds texture to the film, particularly the four individuals who make up the town’s administration: Michel Duchaussoy as the Governor, Philippe Nagnan as the President, Christian Charmetant as the Supply Officer, and Philippe Du Janerand as the Customs Officer. Gyslain Tremblay is also memorable as Chevassus, the reluctant executioner.
Lions Gate provides a fitting DVD package for the film. The image transfer is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen utilizing 24 scene selections. The picture is sharp and clear, aside from some slight grain in some of the nighttime shots. The wonderful cinematography and its palette of both rich and drab colours is conveyed very well, from the grays of the sky and water to the vivid greens of the island and to the brilliant whites of the ice-covered sea. Skin tones are bang on and edge enhancement is not an issue.
The principal sound track on the disc is a French language Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. This provides a clear audio component with subtle use of the surrounds. Dialogue is precisely rendered and the film’s music that with its slightly sad tones seems such an integral part of the film effectively wraps one up in the whole film experience. A dubbed English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track is included, but is not recommended. English, French and Spanish subtitles are available.
A fine set of supplements rounds out the disc. Principal among them is a set of interviews with the director and the three main actors lasting almost 35 minutes in total. The comments that deal with the individuals’ feelings about the material and their approaches to directing or acting in it are among the most interesting and insightful that I have heard from any of these types of on-the-set interviews. These are all intelligent, well-spoken people with worthwhile things to say. Following the interviews, there is a short (about nine minutes) documentary that shows the cast and crew at work filming various parts of the film. There is no voice-over narration, dialogue being restricted to whatever the various people have to say in the course of their activities. For a brief time, there is no sound track whatsoever. Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer and trailers for two other films — Songcatcher and South Of Heaven, West Of Hell — accessible by clicking on the Lions Gate logo on the main menu.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre lingers long in the memory due to the film’s imagery and its affecting performances. It is a thoughtful film with a story that is original in nature and one that is directed with skill and sensitivity. Lions Gate provides a nicely rounded disc with an excellent transfer and good supplements. Highly recommended.