The Widow of St. Pierre

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Mar 13 10:26:29 MST 2001

Late one night in 1849 a drunken sailor murders his former captain on the
forlorn, windswept island of St. Pierre in maritime Canada. As French
subjects, the local magistrates must comply with the law of the republic
and have him guillotined. Since the island lacks such a device, a
requisition order goes out to fetch both a guillotine and an executioner.
Until they arrive from St. Martinique, the prisoner will be kept under the
custody of the captain of the local jail, who is married to "Madame La," as
the local denizens refer to the wife of La Capitain. With these spare
elements of a tale based on true events, director Patrice LeConte
("Ridicule" was his credit) delivers a powerful dramatic message in "The
Widow of St. Pierre" against capital punishment and for the redemptive
power of love and compassion.

Soon after being jailed, the prisoner Neel Auguste (played by Emir
Kusturica, the Yugoslav director of "Underground") is summoned to the
apartment of the captain whose wife has taken pity on him. Since it might
take months for the guillotine to arrive, there is no reason not to make
him comfortable until that moment arrives. Played by Juliette Binoche,
Madame La is innocent of suspicion or fear. Under her supervision, Neel
builds a greenhouse in the jail's courtyard. Holding up a flower, she tells
him that the goal is to bring life and beauty into a hostile environment.
With her eyes on the hulking, withdrawn prisoner, it is clear that she
seeks to reap life and beauty from him as well. After the greenhouse is
finished, she takes him with her everywhere in the village to find other
chores to keep him busy, from repairing roofs to saving the life of a woman
on a runaway wagon.

While the captain (Daniel Auteuil) is deeply in love with his wife and
anxious to assist her in this reclamation project, he is by no means a
typical jailer. Of an aristocratic bearing, he seems to prefer riding his
horse "Salt Cod" on the rocky cliffs of St. Pierre to the mundane details
of jail-keeping. Even before Madame La ever takes an interest in the
prisoner, he decides to leave the cell door open. After all, on this remote
island there is virtually no escape.

Alongside the human drama of "The Widow of St. Pierre," the landscape and
population of the island help to shape the narrative of the film and lend
it a particularly somber tone, especially during the winter months which
anticipate the arrival of the guillotine. In their black oilskin parkas,
the local sailors and dockhands stand out vividly against the drifting snow
like hunched-over figures in a Breughel landscape. And it is these humble,
faceless and nameless men and women of St. Pierre who eventually rally to
Neel. When the local magistrates put up posters advertising for an
executioner, they tear them down one by one.

The captain and his wife are not ideologues. The only time they seem to
take notice of politics is when he sits by the fireside in their living
room reading a Paris newspaper. He mentions to Madame La that there is
strife and bloodshed in the streets, but does not connect it to the more
immediate drama facing them and the prisoner. Of course only one year
earlier all of Europe was being swept by revolution against the old order.
France, which was once in the vanguard, had now become a bastion of
reaction all in the name of the values of "the republic". The captain and
his wife seem to adhere to an earlier notion of civic duty that has not
been tainted by the guillotine or the Thermidor republic.

Essentially "Widow of St. Pierre" is not a political film, although it
speaks to a question addressing all progressives, namely how to live by a
set of principles. It is this higher calling that the main characters of
the film respond to, in the face of the callousness and brutality of the
existing order. This is also the theme of "Ridicule," LeConte's last film
which dramatized the struggle of an aristocrat in pre-1789 France to rid
his ancestral lands of the malarial swamp that is killing his subjects. To
gain an audience with the King, he discovers that he must master the art of
"ridicule", the verbal art of one-upsmanship that provides a cruel
entertainment for the court's inner circle.

Although not remarked on by the film critics, "Widow of St. Pierre" evokes
another 19th century tale of capital punishment. While Herman Melville's
"Billy Budd" also draws together an aristocratic officer and a commoner
facing execution, the decision here is to obey the law rather than a higher
justice. The captain of a British warship decides to proceed with an
execution despite all the evidence pointing to an accidental death provoked
by extreme cruelty from another officer whom the ship's crew hates and
fears. Budd, like Neel, is beloved by the commoners.

Unlike St. Pierre's captain, the captain in Melville's tale opts for
following the letter of the law. While this tale has been analyzed and
deconstructed by modern literary scholars as having to do with anything
from homosexuality to theology, it is essentially a story like most of
Melville's, one deeply entwined with the struggle of ordinary working
people against a cruel, class-divided society. For an analysis from this
perspective, see the article titled "Billy Budd and Capital Punishment" at by H. Bruce Franklin, one of
the USA's most distinguished Melville scholars and a long-time socialist.

"Widow of St. Pierre" is currently being shown at the Paris Theater in NYC
and can probably be seen at art-houses in major cities around the United

Louis Proyect
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