Living and dying for love: c'est tragique

Movie review: It's not fate that bobbles the ball in `Widow of Saint-Pierre.' No, blame romantic narcissism.

April 14, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

"The Widow of Saint-Pierre" wants to be seen as a love story, a tragic tale of what passion can do, about the hard choices our hearts force us to make, about the lengths we'll go for love.

Well, if they say so.

But to this man's eyes, "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" is about love of self, and about how one woman's blind desire to follow her heart leads to the destruction of the man she swore to share it with.

And this woman is the film's tragic heroine? Sorry, I don't see it.

Nobly written and acted and beautifully photographed, "Saint-Pierre" has all the trappings of one of those relentlessly tragic French costume dramas, in which fate makes mincemeat out of every character. But those films at least affect their audiences honestly. Fate, it's true, can be a real bear, and no one seems to know that better than French filmmakers. But fate and the romantic narcissism depicted here are not the same thing.

One night in a drunken rage, Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica), kills a man just to get a look at what's under his clothes. He's caught and sentenced to die via the guillotine, the preferred method of execution in Revolutionary-era France. The problem is that Saint-Pierre has no guillotine, and it'll take about eight months to get one here.

So Auguste will just have to sit and wait and ponder.

Juliette Binoche is Madame La, the beautiful and much-gossiped-about wife of the military commandant of Saint-Pierre, which in the 1800s was still a French colony near Newfoundland. She takes a liking to Auguste and convinces her highly principled (and hopelessly besotted) husband (Daniel Auteuil) to let him work for her, building a garden, planting and repairing the neighbors' homes.

Before long, Auguste is a new man - beloved, ethical, industrious and scrupulously honest. The entire island falls in love with him. Nobody wants to see him die anymore. But a guillotine is on the way, and the island politicians don't want to look weak in the eyes of the Republic.

Oh, and did we mention that, as Saint-Pierre's military commandant, it will be Madame La's husband's duty to ensure that the execution is carried out?

As you can see, all sorts of tragedies are set to unfold, and most of them do. But perhaps the greatest tragedy is that the real heavy in this film, the character who insists on playing both ends against the middle, somehow comes out appearing the most wronged.

Sure, it's too bad the gambit didn't work, but that's not fate's problem.

`The Widow of Saint-Pierre'

Starring Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica

Directed by Patrice Leconte

Released by Lions Gate Films

Rated R (Language, adult situations)

Running time 108 minutes

Sun score ** 1/2

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