La Veuve de Saint-Pierre

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

LA VEUVE DE SAINT-PIERRE

6

(The Widow of Saint-Pierre)

France/Canada 2000

dir. Patrice Leconte

scr. Claude Faraldo

cin. Eduardo Serra

stars Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica

112 minutes

Patrice Leconte proves his own worst enemy with La Veuve de Saint-Pierre. He’s to be congratulated for bringing an unlikely historical true-story to life in evocative, convincing detail – but then he shoots himself in the foot by ramming everything all home with incongruous, crashing unsubtlety.

This is a wintry story, set in the barren French colony of Saint-Pierre, an island off Newfoundland, in 1849. Faces are pinched against the incessant wind and snow, colours are muted into cobalt, ruby, mustard and verdigris: every aspect of the production design is top-notch, unobtrusively bare and restrained – which makes Leconte’s histrionics behind the camera all the more noticeable and inappropriate.

This is too strong and unusual a story to need any kind of jazzing up – hulking fisherman Neel Auguste (Kusturica) stabs a man to death in a drunken fury. He’s sentenced to death, and the law dictates a guillotine must be used. But the nearest guillotine is in far-off Martinique, so Auguste is placed in military custody under the charge of enigmatic captain Jean (Auteuil). This brings him into contact with Jean’s wife, Pauline, known as ‘Madame La’ (Binoche), who, seeing goodness and dignity in the now-sober Neel, attempts to rehabilitate him. This proves such a success that Neel becomes something of a hero among the simple folk of Saint-Pierre, much to the embarrassment of the ruling council, who insist that justice must see out its course.

La Veuve is a patient, well-crafted, somewhat old-fashioned kind of picture in the vein of The Piano, but with oddball touches, characters and developments that make for an engrossing couple of hours. The trouble is that Leconte keeps getting in the way – few recent films can have had quite so many gratuitous camera movements, and his habit of underlining the import of every scene by zooming in on the face of one participant or another is as irritating as it is patronising. One sequence showing a council meeting starts off with the camera right at ground level, then it slowly glides upwards – distracting the viewer from whatever the scene may actually be about.

Equally off-putting is Leconte’s ham-fisted use of music, which often swells to obliterate the ambiguity that would seem to be at the heart of the film’s appeal. The relationship between Kusturica and Binoche trembles fascinatingly at the edge of a romance, but Leconte ruins what should be the pair’s key scene, when she’s teaching him to read and their fingers ‘accidentally’ touch on the page, by indulging himself with a full-bore crescendo – total silence would have added so much more.

That such gaffes fail to torpedo the enterprise is a tribute to the professionalism of the three leads, whose solid but surprising performances develop real depth over the course of the film – they seem, Auteuil in particular, to grasp complexities of the screenplay which completely elude their director. Thanks to Faraldo, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre succeeds as part thriller and part romance, part philosophy and part history, hovering gracefully between light and dark as it moves towards an impressively hard-hitting finale. A finale which galvanises even Leconte into producing – with the last two shots – the movie’s two triumphant, resonant visual coups.