Well-acted and beautifully filmed, The Widow of Saint-Pierre doesn't generate enough heat to fire-up the screen.
Thursday, May 10, 2001
Let''s start by saying there''s nothing specifically negative that can be said about The Widow of Saint-Pierre, Patrice Leconte''s period melodrama that''s been drawing raves from critics around the country. It''s a beautifully filmed, well-acted romance full of subtitled platonic yearning, soulful glances and noble actions that turn out badly for all characters concerned. In terms of costume drama, it''s damn near perfect, with nary a cinematic hair out of place.
But for all that-maybe because of all that-it''s also a cold, aloof bit of filmmaking.
The story, set in the French territory of Saint-Pierre Island off the coast of mid-19th-century Newfoundland, concerns Neel August (Emir Kusturica), an otherwise nice guy who gets drunk and senselessly murders one of the citizens in the fishing village where he lives. August is condemned to have his head lopped off by a guillotine. But the island has neither guillotine nor executioner, so his death is delayed until such time as these items are brought to town-a span of several months. In the meantime, August is remanded into the custody of the Captain (Daniel Auteuil), the island''s military commander.
August exchanges meaningful glances with the Captain''s wife, Madame La (Juliette Binoche), and, before you know it, the two have fallen deeply in love. Despite the passion bubbling beneath the surface, La and August are too noble to act on their baser impulses. They do, however, become inseparable companions, flouncing around town doing good deeds for the townsfolk-who are scandalized by the pair''s relationship and yet seduced by August''s willingness to help out around town.
The Captain watches the situation develop in infatuated silence. He, we are given to understand, loves his wife so deeply that he''s unwilling to curtail her involvement with his prisoner. (Of course that might be because he is a sort of beneficiary of the situation: There''s one scene of the Captain and his missus boinking like crazed rabbits-tastefully filmed, of course-and her eyes are very tightly closed.)
In fact, The Captain himself begins to defy the city''s powerbrokers and refuses to aid in the coming execution. In the end, no good deed goes unpunished and blood is spilled.
To understand the movie, think of it as a Merchant/Ivory Production that combines Down and Out in Beverly Hills with The Piano. In both those films, there''s a down-and-out guy (Nick Nolte and Harvey Keitel, respectively), who becomes the love interest of an upper-crust woman (Bette Midler and Holly Hunter). That, however, was a theme that was old when D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley''s Lover in the 1920s.
The comparisons go deeper. In Beverly Hills, Nolte''s character manages to charm everyone with whom he comes in contact, and there are scenes in Widow-particularly one in which Madame La is teaching August to read-that are strikingly reminiscent of those in Piano where Hunter''s character gives Keitel''s piano lessons.
But where Beverly Hills was enlivened by a knowing, earthy humor, and where Piano was punctuated by graphic violence, Widow floats like a moonlit remembrance of the past, pulled by the tides to an inevitable conclusion.
For fans of crinoline, yearning and meaningful gazes, The Widow of Saint-Pierre is sure to be a richly rewarding film. The three principals give deeply nuanced performances, and Leconte''s pacing is appropriately deliberate.
But for audiences who want their romances to be a little more down-to-earth, Widow is likely to become tedious-sorta like a bodice-ripping romance that never rips any bodices.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre ... ( * * * 1/2 )
Director: Patrice Leconte
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica
Where: Osio in Monterey
When: See Movie Times