- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

A French import booked exclusively at Visions Cinema, "The Widow of St. Pierre" is designed to be a double-edged title. Director Patrice Leconte seems to get suggestively ahead of his story, an account of how idealism can prove a perverse and self-defeating prelude to calamity and heartache.
A haunting prologue poses Juliette Binoche in solitude at the end of a long chamber, gazing out a window while garbed in mid-19th century costume. The camera cautiously approaches; when it nears, Miss Binoche fixes it with a provocative, perhaps accusing gaze. The rest of the movie may or may not clarify the gaze.
As a practical matter, scenic and atmospheric evocations of time and place prove easier for Mr. Leconte to express than tragic character flaws. Miss Binoches character is also the designated narrator, taking the scenario into flashback. A noblewoman known as Pauline to her devoted spouse, Daniel Auteuil as a French officer named Jean, the heroine recalls the circumstances that estranged them once and for all from her husbands remote command: a military garrison and prison on the island of St. Pierre, a French possession near Newfoundland.
A dire sequence of events begins in 1849, when two drunken fishermen blunder into the murder of an acquaintance. The crime leaves one man, the burly Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica), condemned to death.
Neel becomes the prisoner of Capt. Jean, last name not revealed. The captain and his lady (known to the locals as Madame La … ) turn out to be proud outcasts within the islands governing elite. Rumors of social defiance seem to have followed them from Paris in a hazy past. The weak spot in the movie turns out to be Mr. Lecontes sketchy account of these passionately devoted and snobbish people, who dont mind offending their peers and arouse fresh animosity, especially in the governor (an impressive performance from Michel Duchaussoy), by treating Neel as a rehabilitation project.
The speedy execution that might once have followed Neels conviction has been made impossible by the guillotine. St. Pierre doesnt have one. Since capital punishment legally demands the device, known colloquially as "veuve," or widow, in the sense of widow-maker, Neel is kept in custody until a spare blade can be transported from the nearest French possession, Martinique.
Madame La makes the prisoner a special humanitarian project in the interim. She drafts him as a gardener and then a handyman. In the latter capacity he becomes the consort of a local widow and then becomes her bridegroom, in order to legitimize their expected child.
Neel also becomes a local hero when he rescues a runaway structure, a cafe being hauled from one location to another by rope. Despite this redemptive turn, a crisis looms when and if the Martinique guillotine arrives. Jean and Pauline fervently desire Neels freedom, but it may only be possible at the cost of the captains office and life. If Neel should escape his sentence, Jean could be court-martialed.
Despite the threat, the captain intends to abet his wifes crusade to the utmost. Though never ignorant of the threat, Pauline is enough of a fanatic bluestocking to risk Jeans life, underestimating the selfless potential in both husband and protege.
Mr. Leconte sustains an impressive scenic illusion of the past that needs to be filled out by adequate character exploration. There simply arent enough scenes that account for Jean and Pauline as die-hard rebels and do-gooders. The island gets its missing guillotine but the movie is still at the mercy of missed opportunities to clarify the courage and folly of a fatally self-righteous couple.

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