An unconventional love story told with delicacy and power, “The Widow of Saint-Pierre” is a sweeping costumer shot through with issues and considerations that are as pertinent today as they were 150 years ago. Based on true events, pic recounts the strange and wonderful triangle formed by a military officer, his beloved wife and the convicted murderer she endeavors to redeem via kindness and trust. Movie is beautifully made and genuinely haunting, but the picturesque venture is leisurely by contemporary standards, and too much advance description of how events play out could rob the film of some of its well-earned impact. Juliette Binoche’s name will secure for-eign sales, but it is Daniel Auteuil’s piercing perf that lingers well after the lights go up.
Story is set in 1849 and 1850 on the French-run island of St. Pierre, off the southern coast of Newfoundland. The local captain (Auteuil), respected by his men despite a reputation for being “bizarre,” and his wife (Binoche) are childless. She is referred to simply as Madame La, as calling a woman Madame La Capitaine would be unseemly.
The local dignitaries don’t understand why the well-born and “modern” Madame La would have left a good fam-ily to follow a mere soldier to this remote outpost. But what remains a mystery to them is made touchingly clear to the audience: The two share a mutually adoring and satisfyingly carnal relationship predicated on love and respect. Along with Neil Jordan’s “The End of the Affair,” pic is the finest recent example of deep, adult desire and devotion translated to the screen.
Life on St. Pierre is disrupted when two visiting sailors take a drunken bet too far, murder a local resident and are sentenced to death. One dies in an accident en route to prison, leaving only Neel Auguste (Yugoslav helmer Emir Kusturica, in his screen debut). In a French territory subject to French regulations, all executions must be carried out via guillotine — “widow” in 19th-century slang — but St. Pierre doesn’t have one, so the contraption has to be sent from far-off Paris.
Convinced that no men are all bad, Madame La suggests that Neel could do useful work such as gardening and roof repair in the meantime. The captain, who can refuse his wife nothing, allows Neel to move freely, which is the beginning of a treacherous chess game between the stubborn officer and the increasingly intransigent bigwigs of local government. If the prisoner were to escape, the captain would be required to take his place on the guillotine.
Some citizens snicker that she and her repentant charge are having an affair, but under Madame La’s tutelage — and via a genuinely thrilling instance of physical heroism — Neel becomes a well-liked and valued member of the community as the pesky “widow” makes its long ocean journey from France.
Pacing is slow by Hollywood standards, but there’s always something going on as pic explores the ramifications of civil disobedience and the death penalty. In a vividly delineated world of firm decisions and ineluctable conse-quences, it is a heady experience witnessing the bold speech and decisive actions of people who have the courage of their convictions.
Viewers who warmed to the real-life crusaders played by Meryl Streep in “Music of the Heart” and Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” should detect in Binoche’s Madame La a subtler variation on the same tenacious determina-tion. In this case, the heroine, unencumbered by children, is backed from the start by the unconditional love of an exemplary man.
It would be easy to imagine the story falling flat with less dynamic thesps. Binoche is called upon to be both kindhearted and radiant, and as in “Three Colors: Blue” her features seem to lend themselves to an admiring camera that could hail from the silent era. Madame La is a little too good to be true — and like a modern heroine, she’s straight-shooting in private and forthright in public.
Auteuil, whose perf in Leconte’s previous film, “The Girl on the Bridge,” won him the best actor Cesar, is terrific as the enigmatic, serenely self-assured officer whose wife and whose word are sacred. His bearing goes beyond noble, yielding the 19th-century embodiment of one cool dude. With his halting, accented French and imposing demeanor, Kusturica is excellent as the initially oafish outsider who becomes a cherished member of the tight-knit community. Supporting players are fine across the board.
Making the most of a shoot that spanned several seasons, pic is lensed with widescreen flair in sharp, distinctive light. Snowy, sun-drenched vistas are particularly magnificent to behold. Costumes are invaluable in establishing the era, its formal conventions and class distinctions, and pic’s score is ominous and romantic by turns.