The "widow" referred to in the title of La Veuve de Saint-Pierre
isn't a woman, but a mechanism--to be exact, the guillotine, (though the title does take on a second meaning in the tragic final moments of the film). We're on the island of Saint-Pierre, a tiny forgotten French colony off the coast of Newfoundland, midway through the 19th century. A senseless drunken murder is committed and the killer is condemned to death, but zut alors!
, there's no guillotine on the island. So one must be requested from the slow, bureaucratic authorities in Paris and, once approved, laboriously shipped over. Meanwhile the killer, a simple-minded giant of a man, is placed in the custody of the Captain, whose beautiful wife starts taking an interest in the prisoner.
Director Patrice Leconte has always had an acute feel for place and period--he directed the mordantly witty costume drama Ridicule--and La Veuve vividly captures the sense of remoteness and resentful isolation of this blizzard-swept community. The brooding landscape, all slate-blues and greys, is beautifully framed by Eduardo Serra's camera, and Leconte draws affecting performances from his central trio of actors: Daniel Auteuil, with his intriguingly lopsided face, as the Captain; Juliette Binoche, radiantly vulnerable as his wife; and, in an unexpected but remarkably successful bit of casting, Serbian film director Emir Kusturica as the condemned man. La Veuve de Saint-Pierre may be a touch over-solemn at times, and its message is hardly unexpected; but it's an intelligent, engrossing and richly atmospheric piece of filmmaking. --Philip Kemp