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The Widow Of St Pierre  

Cast: Juliette Binoche...............Madame La
Daniel Auteuil.................Jean
Emir Kusturica.................Ariel Neel Auguste
Michel Duchaussoy..............The Governor
Philippe Magnan................President Venot
Christian Charmetant...........Supply and Secretariat Officer
Philippe De Janerand...........Customs Officer
Reynald Bouchard...............Louis Ollivier
Ghyslain Tremblay..............Monsieur Chevassus
Marc Beland....................Soldier Loic
Yves Jacques...................The Rear Admiral
Maurice Chevit.................The Governor's Father
Catherine Lascault.............La Malvilain
Dominique Quesnel..............The Proprietor
Anne-Marie Philipe.............The Governor's Wife

Directed by: Patrice Leconte Written by: Claude Faraldo

Rated R for a scene of sexuality and brief violence
Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

"The Widow of St. Pierre" is a film that at first seems to be a simple morality tale. However, a feeling kept sneaking up on me that there was a bit more to the story. Indeed, a powerful observation of the human condition exists beneath the surface plot. Compassion is explored in the story to such a depth that after a while I was struck with the realization that the movie also explored the varying degrees of obsession. I wasn't fully cognizant of it until the movie's conclusion. (I'm slow that way.)

The story takes place in the 1850's on a small French island off the coast of Newfoundland. There is a murder. The culprits are two fishermen who got sloppy drunk and committed the crime, yet upon sobering up are barely able to remember why. They are sentenced to die by way of the guillotine. One is killed prematurely by being belted with a rock. The other is made to wait until a guillotine is shipped from Guadeloupe. (The don't have one on the island.)

The murderer's name is Neel (Emir Kusturica), and he is locked up as the long trek to transport the guillotine gets under way. Madame La (Juliette Binoche), the wife of the local military captain (Daniel Auteuil) holds a degree of compassion for the prisoner. Her compassion is so strong that we begin to sense something more potent; a sensual stirring perhaps? She asks him to assist in the cultivation of her garden, to which he agrees. Soon after, an unusual change starts to take place. The criminal begins engaging in all sorts of benevolent acts, from fixing rooftops to saving a woman's life. He is soon embraced by the islanders to the point where the town judge proclaims, "his popularity is a nuisance."

The movie's exploration of human psychology is much more subtle than my description makes it sound. The director is Patrice Leconte, whose films deal with human beings falling victim to their own obsessions. His past works include "Monsieur Hire", about a lonely man who is captivated by the woman whose window faces his, and "The Hairdresser's Husband" about a man who houses an unusually strong fascination with hair. The theme of obsession in "The Widow of St. Pierre" is a bit more subtle, but it's there, and eventually leads to a climax of amazing power.

There are two different obsessions here, I think. One takes the form of a quiet benevolence, as Madame La reaches out to the condemned man, offering compassion and even a degree of love. The other belongs to her husband, Jean. He's aware of her compassion and her need to reach out, yet is never overcome with any sort of jealousy. He loves and admires her to such a degree that he shares her trust in this man without question. The crusade is hers, but his obsession with her kindness propels him into an inauspicious light with the town leaders. They believe the stand he takes regarding his prisoner is the result of his own ethics, and charge him with sedition. But we realize it has nothing to do with personal ethics or governmental politics; he takes the stand for his wife. He loves her, cherishes her, and would do anything to make himself worthy of her love.

The treasure in watching the movie is how Leconte builds the story's cogency not by painting the film with broad strokes of narrative morality, but by softly allowing the camera to study the pain, compassion, and love as expressed by the people involved. The movie's emotional power is filtered directly through the actors' performances, and Binoche, Auteuil, and Kusturica subtly and beautifully capture the longings of each character. By the end, the moral implications didn't linger in my thoughts as much as the sacrifices of those who loved with all their might.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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