The Widow of Saint-Pierre begins with a long shot of Madame La (Juliette Binoche) gazing out the window of a dark, empty room. As the camera slowly pans forward to a close-up of her face, we see she has been crying. Judging by this tableau and by her dark clothes, it would appear that she is the widow of the title. Later, we discover that the film’s story is told in flashback, as it is book-ended by this image.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre is a much more complicated film than this single image initially suggests. The French island of Saint-Pierre is full of widows and widows-to-be. After all, it is 1849, and members of the town are all subject to rigid French law, ruled by the unflinching blade of the guillotine. And when fisherman Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica) is sentenced to death for murdering a man while drunk, the townspeople have to wait for months for the guillotine (dubbed “the widow-maker”) to arrive from Martinique.
The Widow of Saint-pierre (La Veuve de Saint Pierre)
Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica
(Lions Gate Films)
In the meantime, the town’s Capitaine (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife, Madame La (so named because the town’s men believe it would be absurd to call her “Madame La Capitaine”), agree to look after Neel, beyond the Capitaine’s regular duties, keeping prisoners in jail. Newly married and deeply in love, the couple is known for their “modern ideas,” which means—in the film’s rather simplistic terms—that they are willing to look beyond a man’s deed and into his character. It also means that they make love often, curtains billowing in the background.
As in many of director Leconte’s film’s (Girl on the Bridge, Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser’s Husband), sex and death are inextricably linked. Indeed, the condemned man’s arrival seems to re-ignite the couple’s passion, as their philosophical discussions about capital punishment are often peppered with furtive kisses. Madame La, in particular, is drawn to Neel’s quiet strength, and soon tends to him like her greenhouse garden, nurturing him and teaching him how to read. Yet, beneath her motherly affection lies a deeper passion: when Neel takes up with a local woman, Madame La looks on with fascination when she discovers them making love.
The rest of the townspeople are initially horrified that Neel’s execution has been put on hold. When he is first driven to Madame La’s home, onlookers pelt his carriage with rocks. But soon, the people begin to see that Neel is no monster; they are surprised to find he is kind and generous, even willing to risk his own life for a local woman in danger. And so the locals rally behind him, refusing to act as executioners when the guillotine finally does arrive.
All this results in a wrenching decision for Madame La, as she must weigh her devotion to her husband (who, as La Capitaine, is ultimately responsible for seeing that Neel is executed, even if this betrays his own beliefs) and to her own notion of justice. Will Madame La risk her own husband’s life to save Neel’s? It is here where the film becomes frustrating, bogged down by its own political message against the death penalty. While the film would have its viewers believe that French law is as cruel as Neel’s crime, it is hard to believe—as the naive Madame La says to Neel—that the issue reduces to the simple concept that “people change.” After all, Neel’s good deeds pale in comparison to the brutality of the murder he committed. With so little to risk (after all, he is condemned to die), surely it is easier for Neel to be heroic. Is there no one in the town who believes that he should be punished?
Despite these quibbles, The Widow of Saint-Pierre remains an effective, if heavy-handed, tale of redemption and forgiveness. Furthermore, it offers a sharp social critique of the upper class, whose members casually discuss the facts of the execution as they sip port and play card games. The Governor (Michel Duchaussoy), in particular, is depicted as a conceited autocrat, concerned more about his own image than a man’s life, but as fellow members of the aristocracy, even La Capitaine and Madame La are subtly implicated in Laconte’s critique. At first, they seem so absorbed in their romance, that they are oblivious to the harsh world around them.
But while the film raises these complex questions about justice and compassion, it fails to fully develop Madame La’s character. For instance, why would she consider putting her husband’s life in jeopardy? Does she prize her ideals above this “good” man’s life, or is she simply distracted by infatuation? More pointedly, is the choice that she makes at the end of the film an action to emulate or one to judge?
Perhaps Leconte is arguing that we should not judge people’s actions at all, but that point of view seems naive, particularly in light of the film’s complex moral issues. Still, The Widow of Saint-Pierre should be commended for leaving its audience with much to think about after the lights come up. Unfortunately, without knowing Madame La’s motivation, it’s difficult to sympathize with her, staring placidly out the window at the gray skies of Saint-Pierre.