If a man can truly be rehabilitated, is the death penalty justified? That’s the question at the heart of The Widow of Saint-Pierre, Patrice Leconte’s compelling period film based on a true story. The film offers a haunting exploration not only of the morality of capital punishment, but of the system which sanctions it. This tale’s troubling conclusion begs the question, which is more brutal?
This gracefully understated film’s message is portrayed with subtlety and dignity. Never heavy-handed, it simply tells the story of a condemned man and the woman who tries to save him. In some respects it’s like Dead Man Walking, although where that film had us trying to sympathize with an unremorseful and cold-blooded killer, The Widow of Saint-Pierre gives us a condemned man who accepts full responsibility for his act and becomes the model prisoner. It’s much easier to see the immorality of executing such a noble repentant.
Based on a story recorded in court records, the film is set in 1849 on Saint-Pierre, one of the cod islands of Newfoundland, Canada. Two drunken men kill a man. One is sentenced to hard labor, the other to the guillotine. But there is one problem. Newfoundland has no guillotine. The French officials who govern the colony send word to Paris and Martinique requesting a spare guillotine, a request that could take months or even years to fulfill.
In the meantime, the prisoner Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica) is held in the custody of the Captain (Daniel Auteuil) charged with overseeing the prison. The Captain’s wife, Madame La (Juliette Binoche), takes an interest in this unusual prisoner, asking her doting husband to allow Neel to help her with her garden. She is a woman with “modern ideas” who believes that people change, that a “man may be bad one day and good the next.” She adopts Neel not only as her protégé but also as her rescue project. She sees a prison’s role to rehabilitate, not merely to punish, and she intends to guide Neel to redemption.
Madame La regards this prisoner as a human being and treats him with respect and trust, taking him out of his cell to help the townspeople patch roofs, shovel snow and tend to countless other tasks. Neel diligently fulfills his duties, obeying the kind-hearted Madame La as though he were her devoted pet. Not only does Madame La lead him to sobriety, she teaches him to read as well. Soon, Neel becomes an accepted and admired member of the community. In one heroic act, he even saves a woman’s life. “Now people can see what you’re really like,” Madame La tells him proudly.
Not surprisingly, the French officials begin to gossip about Madame La and the prisoner, criticizing the Captain for indulging his wife. The film hints at sexual tension between the wife and her protégé, but their relationship is based on a mutual trust and respect that doesn’t let them cross any boundaries. They are a rare breed—two people whose primary interest is in doing the right thing.
Director Patrice Leconte tells this tale in a straightforward, simple fashion, letting the actors’ faces reveal their emotions and motives. Dialogue, in fact, is appropriately sparse, just like the landscape these characters inhabit. When Madame La asks Neel, “Why do you do everything I ask?” the way he looks at her with his sad eyes says everything. In one scene as Madame La teaches Neel to read, they sit close to each other, illuminated by the dim lamplight, their fingers following the words on the page. All the emotion of that scene is revealed in a gesture as simple as the way their fingers touch on the page. It’s an electric moment, perfectly drawn. So much is unspoken in Leconte’s beautifully understated scenes, yet so much is evident. Such exquisite subtlety is refreshing.
Emir Kusturica plays Neel Auguste as a simple man who commits a foolish crime in a drunken moment. With his long hair and unkempt beard, his shoulders stooped in shame, he looks like a hulking beast, staring mournfully through his fur. Yet, his demeanor belies his gentleness, whereas the refined elites who govern the island are perfectly manicured, but their own banality and pettiness makes them the real beasts.
Juliette Binoche, in another beautifully restrained performance, brings a touching vulnerability to the courageous Madame La. She has a calming presence, but her strength and resolve are so impressive that even her husband takes up her cause, with what will be tragic consequences. Humanism, it seems, is seen as tantamount to mutiny. The wonderful Daniel Auteuil, who deserves a much broader international audience, is unforgettable as the husband whose commitment to his wife and her principles is unwavering. The Captain understands what is at risk, but stands by her because his trust in her is as strong as his love.
He angrily defends his wife when the authorities defame her, but he remains the consummate professional when they dispassionately discuss their frustration procuring a guillotine and an executioner. None of the town’s people will take the job. They’ve come to know and respect Neel Auguste. How can they drop the blade through the neck of a man who has become one of their own? To the authorities who keep their distance from the people they govern, however, the prisoner is little more than a nuisance. “We sentenced a brutal killer,” one complains. “And we’re going to execute a top benefactor.” Even the threat of uprisings won’t change the minds of petty bureaucrats bent on following the letter of the law. Their equally petty wives protest an execution, but for reasons so trivial they hardly count. “Life on the island will be so dull,” is one sulking woman’s primary reason for wanting to spare the man she and her friends find so intriguing.
Leconte’s tragic film is a well-played meditation on law and justice that looks deep into the human heart and finds it both cruel and unusually noble.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre (R) HHH1/2. Directed by Patrice Leconte. Starring Juliette Binoche and Emir Kusturica. In French with subtitles.