La Veuve De Saint-Pierre

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

THE isolation of Saint-Pierre, an island off Nova Scotia, smothered in fog for three months in the autumn of 1849, makes demands on those who live there.

As part of French Canada, its ties to Paris are tenuous and yet taken to extremes. When an illiterate fisherman, called Neel, kills a man during a drunken brawl, he is condemned to death.

Instead of carrying out the sentence from a gibbet, or shooting the prisoner in the courtyard of the jail quickly and without fuss, the governing body follows the letter of the law. Although a midge-sized dot on the map of a little known North American continent, Saint-Pierre remains a part of France, where the approved method of dispensing with murderers is beheading, not by the crude method of the English, but humanely in the care of Madame Guillotine.

Patrice Leconte (Girl On The Bridge, Ridicule) is a director who says as much through gesture as words. His films are filled with visual innuendo and artistic surprise, never more so than here. The beauty of the look of the film is matched by the intensity and nuance between Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil, playing together for the first time.

He is the captain of the jail, a soldier with a past, who lets conscience overrule consensus, and, as a result, is treated with suspicion by the leaders of the community. She plays his wife, the idiosyncratic Madame La, whose sympathy for the oppressed benefits house plants and prisoners alike.

Neel (the Bosnian film director, Emir Kusturica, giving a powerful performance) is allowed the freedom of the prison grounds and later the town, accompaning Madame La on her many charitable ventures. He becomes admired and liked by those who come in contact with him, making the arrival of the guillotine by boat from Europe an event noone cares to think about.

Neel's relationship with Madame La has an unspoken emotional dependency. Madame La's relationship with her husband is fired by loyalty and sexual attraction. The Captain's relationship with his horse proves stronger than his fear of those who wish to disgrace him.

The contrast between the narrow minded attitudes of the island's governors and Madame La's independent spirit is etched on the Captain's face. This is a film that cries out for the love of man in the language of desolation.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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La Veuve De Saint-Pierre packshot
Repressed passions flare in French island off Nova Scotia in mid 19th century.
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