April 5, 2001

A Widow Into the Past

Print More

It seems like critics always describe foreign films in absolute terms; they’re either stupendous or horrible. Run Lola Run and Life is Beautiful were said to be must-see masterpieces. On the other hand, critically despised foreign releases are hardly ever shown in the U.S. French director Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of Saint-Pierre falls right in the middle.

On a fishing island in the French Republic, a local murder occurs and the criminal is sentenced to death. According to French law, a guillotine must carry out this sentence; however, the town does not have one. As the village awaits its arrival, and an executioner, the murderer is befriended by an upstanding Captain (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife (Juliette Binoche, Chocolat). This kind of internal debate, mirrored by this friendship, over right vs. wrong and good vs. evil continues throughout the entire movie.

The Widow is artistically filmed and features talented performances. The beautiful and exquisite Binoche has never before let her viewers down, and she certainly does not start now. As the devoted husband, Auteuil is a convincing character, and Emir Kusturica is similarly effective as the criminal. Their story is largely believable, even though Binoche’s character falls victim to an occasionally shallow and naive script.

The camerawork is also superb. Using interactive film techniques, like rocking the camera when on a boat or during a drunken scene, the viewers feel as if they are a part of the action. The scenery was also realistically depicted as a mid-nineteenth century small town with convincing local townspeople appearing in period costumes. The use of sound editing was well correlated with the visual shots and worked to bring the art direction full circle.

Still, it feels as if something is missing from this film. The story is based on a hackneyed formula that has found its way onto the big screen many times. The classic question, “Can people really change?” is posed. As usual in films, its answer remains ambiguous. And, in the end, The Widow didn’t help us come any closer to the conclusion.

Often, this movie becomes boring and dry in between the emotionally charged scenes. Its artistic merit is intriguing, but less than satisfying with regards to content. The Widow is like the elevator music of film: bearable to watch, but who really listens?

If you like artsy films in the vein of The Piano, though, this film will probably strike your fancy. Its beauty is truly marvelous. But if you prefer your cinematic adventures to be full of content and resolution, then wait to see this movie some afternoon when there is absolutely nothing else to do. And, try not to fall asleep.

Archived article by Cory Sinclair