Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of St. Pierre divides its time between storybook romance and progressive pamphleteering. Leconte has of late become a capably light handler of exportable candies, from truffles (Ridicule) to bubble gum (Girl on the Bridge). A tad heavier, Widow melds cushy, humanist-to-the-bone politics with a captivating, if somewhat discordant, cast.
Based on a 19th-century incident in which a condemned man becomes a briny island’s most popular citizen while he’s waiting for a rusty guillotine to arrive from Martinique, the movie positively bursts with multiple meanings. The title applies as both the slang term for the decapitator and to the women in the film who witness their lovers’ deaths (Widow‘s sexy equation of woman with blade dovetails with the highly phallic knives thrown by Daniel Auteuil in Girl on the Bridge). Both male leads—the conscientious unnamed Captain (Auteuil) and the righteous murderer Auguste Neel (plaintively played by nutso Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica)—have a palpable sense of doom hanging over them.
Kusturica, a gentle, nihilist hulk, resembles Pat Garrett-era Kris Kristofferson, though suggesting none of the latter’s pomposity. While his bare-bones semiperformance thrives on darkness and animalism, Juliette Binoche’s is all inner illumination. Playing Madame La, the Captain’s protofeminist wife, she eclipses the mellow men at every turn. Complementing its undying connubial bonds, Widow marries a crisp visual palette with some affected, drama-nailing camera moves. Its rich, declarative images—from the gigantic Boschean fish aboard a foggy ship to Neel’s wife kissing his filthy hands through prison bars—wash over a fairly solid, classical antibureaucracy story; Leconte’s sluggish zooms during tense moments look less important than engorged.
The Widow of St. Pierre uses its pretty maritime location to accommodate a few romantic fatalists who grouse and grimace about capital punishment and the human condition. Far from terrible, Leconte’s latest movie suggests the work of a slightly hip preacher; his with-it, about-faced averaging of styles inevitably pleases fans of glossed film smarts and distinguished technique. Leconte is often called a chameleon; The Widow of St. Pierre proves that underneath the shiftiness is a raft of shadowy sentiment.