a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
In French, with English subtitles.
Director – Patrice Leconte
Writer – Claude Faraldo
Director of photography – Eduardo Sarra
Editor – Joëlle Hache
Producer – Gilles Legrand and Frédéric Brillion
STARRING: Juliette Binoche (Mme. La), Daniel Auteuil (the Captain), Emir Kusturica (Neel Auguste), Philippe Magnan (Judge Venot) and Michel Duchaussoy (the Governor).
Lions Gate Films. 108 minutes. Rated R.
The Widow of St. Pierre, the latest film by director Patrice Leconte, is his most ambitious work yet, and, in this viewer’s opinion, his most compelling. Few films have set up the contrast between the cruel machinery of human justice and the piercing glory of Christian mercy more starkly and profoundly. It’s a powerfully acted parable about the power of grace, and a treasure.
Madame La is not just a nice lady. She has something inside her that compels her to save those who are lost in their sins. The wife of a military captain, and an infamously spirited citizen of a French settlement called St. Pierre in Newfoundland in the 1850s, she lives a quiet, mannered life that will seem repressed and even oppressed to modern viewers. Yet, the love in her heart makes her seem the most free of all the villagers.
Her husband, Le Captaine (as he is called, his name…Jean…rarely mentioned), is a controversial figure as well. He has been assigned this post, but his outspoken wife is not popular with the lawmakers and governors of the community, and he refuses to criticize her. The tension between Le Captaine and the governors is sure to reach a breaking point, and it does, in the case of Neel Auguste, a condemned man entrusted to Le Captaine’s care.
Auguste is an oaf, a simpleton, and a sailor prone to drunkenness. One night after a long and rough time at sea, he and a buddy get completely drunk and head out to the house of a military officer to taunt him. The officer confronts them with a knife, a scuffle ensues, and Auguste kills the man. Before a court, he is dejected, angry, a mix of complicated emotions. He resembles, above all, a dangerous dog who probably became violent due to mistreatment or neglect.
And the talented French director Emir Kusturica, who plays August, bears a strong resemblance to American actor John C. Reilly, of Magnolia fame. Kusturica gives Auguste a huge, brusque screen presence, usually silent, with a face full of shadows and sadness behind a mop of long tousled dark hair. His performance is arresting, and mixes well with the enthusiasm that Juliette Binoche brings to the character of Madame La. Binoche has been better, but her understated work here is certainly sufficient. She plays Madame La as a woman who only comes to life when loving someone, and whose most difficult struggle is to know the boundaries of those feelings. It is Daniel Auteuil, perhaps the finest screen actor in France, who steals the show. As the authoritative army captain, he carries the weight of a man who has seen a lot of hardship. But as the husband of Madame La, he is passionate, devoted, and deeply moved by her.
The marriage of Le Captaine and Madame La is tested when the local lawmakers decide they must get their hands on a guillotine so they can carry out the death sentence. Madame La has other ideas. She is aware of the law, but she cannot resist trying to tame the beast in Auguste and show him the rewards of living with more kindness. It is not the treatment he received as a sailor. Under her kind, cheerful touch, he refuses to come out of his shell, but he does at least learn to be gentle rather than hostile. He works in the garden. He mends roofs. He begins to learn to read. Education and love… that is the two-handed force at work upon him, and while the transformation is not dramatic, it is definite. Auguste is human after all, and when treated properly, he shines.
When an accident in the town sends a woman hurtling to seemingly certain death, Auguste rises to the occasion and shows what else he is capable of. The people of St. Pierre are moved by the display, and the lawmakers realize their fears were well-founded. Love is showing them that the law might not be the highest order of authority. Threatened, they begin their own sinful work of lying, manipulating, and abusing the community until they can please their pride and kill this offense to their security.
Remember when Jesus stepped between those throwing stones and the adulteress they were intent upon punishing? The adulteress had, indeed, sinned. The law had been broken. But Jesus saw there was something more important than that. Love. Love saw a woman who might do better, who might “go and sin no more”. The executors of the law were incensed. But Jesus turned their accusing fingers back at them, pointing out their own sins. Scripture is clear that we all have sinned, all deserve to be cast from God’s good graces. But his love overcomes that. He offers us what we do not deserve. And asks us to “go and do likewise”.
While this powerful movie does not explore very fairly the consequences of Auguste’s murderous actions, Jesus’ story does not dig deep into the details of the adulteress’s affairs either. We don’t need to know, necessarily, more than we are shown. We know that the murder was severe enough to turn the town against him, and that a few days later he has shown them enough to make them realize that, while he certainly needs punishment, perhaps another killing is not the best punishment.
I was moved by director Patrice Leconte’s passionate telling of this story. And while it plunges headlong into a nightmare, at the same time it hits us hard with the truth…that the law might be just, but…as the song says… “Love is stronger than justice.”
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