An Entire Island Finds Mercy Waiting for a Guillotine

Petrice Leconte’s The

Widow of Saint-Pierre , from a screenplay by Claude Faraldo, has been

haunting my dreams as the most devastating assault on capital punishment I have

ever seen enacted on the screen-but this is not ostensibly what the film is

about, at least not entirely. For one thing, the detailed reconstruction of

Saint-Pierre, in 1850 a relatively isolated French island community off the

coast of Newfoundland, makes the story unfold with the leisurely inexorability

of a great 19th-century novel. For another, the triangulated narrative focusing

on two men and a woman suggests a sexual intrigue that never materializes.

Instead, the screen reverberates with a triple epiphany of nobility and

self-sacrifice that is almost Christ-like in its spiritual intensity.

One night, a man is senselessly murdered in an altercation

with two other men who have been drunkenly arguing as to whether the victim was

fat or just big. One of the killers is sentenced to imprisonment in the

galleys, but dies en route in a carriage accident. The other man, Neel Auguste

(Emir Kusturica)-the one who actually wielded the knife-is sentenced to death

by the then-fashionable guillotine, but since there is neither a guillotine nor

an executioner in Saint-Pierre, Neel is placed in the custody of the island’s

enlightened military commandant (Daniel Auteuil), known to us only as “Le

Capitaine,” until one can be shipped over.

The complications begin when the Captain’s beautiful and

charitable wife (Juliette Binoche) takes pity on the confined prisoner, and

persuades her husband to let him work in the garden and help her elsewhere on

the island ministering to the poor. As the prisoner’s gentler side becomes apparent,

“Madame La,” as she is called by the

protocol-conscious bureaucrats and their wives, begins to question the justice

of the death penalty for a kind and considerate man who committed an ugly crime

in a moment of drunken debauchery. The usual arguments on and off the screen

against the death penalty do not apply here. Neel is not an innocent man

falsely convicted or inadequately defended. He admits his crime and is

reconciled to his punishment.

The Captain gradually comes to share his wife’s high opinion

of the prisoner, as do most of the townspeople, particularly after he performs

a heroic deed in full view of the community. The Captain, Madame La and the

citizens all petition the local authorities to grant clemency to the

rehabilitated and redeemed prisoner, but the narrow-minded town elders resent

the new status of the prisoner and implore the French government to speed up

delivery of the guillotine.

At this point, history intervenes to confound the good

intentions of the Captain and Madame with respect to Neel, who has in the

meantime impregnated and married a local widow. Time is now on the side of the

bureaucrats, since the political convulsions in Paris have resulted in the

removal of the Captain’s superiors and a tougher official policy toward the “mob.” A guillotine finally arrives from Paris, and

though no one in Saint-Pierre will serve as the executioner, the local

authorities recruit an impoverished outsider to perform the odious task.

Because the Captain has refused to fire on the rebellious townspeople, he is

relieved of his command and eventually executed himself. The widow of

Saint-Pierre is left alone to wonder if her kindness and mercy to the prisoner

contributed to her beloved husband’s death, though to the end he affirms, with

a defiant sideways movement, his undying love for his wife and his regret for

nothing.

Mr. Leconte began his directorial career in the mid-70′s

with a series of expert farces, but he turned a corner in 1989 with Monsieur Hire , a dramatic thunderbolt of

a film noir with Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire. He followed that with The Hairdresser’s Husband in 1990 and Ridicule in 1996, which won Césars in

France for Best Film and Best Director, and an Oscar nomination in the United

States for Best Foreign Language Film. He has thus gone from small to large

scale, and in some ways has reached his zenith with The Widow of Saint-Pierre . There is so much more to the film and

its characters than its relatively simple plot, particularly since the

characters don’t go around articulating their feelings.

For example, much of the Captain’s passionate nature is

expressed by the way he rides his horse around the wild Saint-Pierre

countryside. Indeed, we see the horse from the moment it is hoisted onto the

island from a freighter to the moment when the Captain, about to embark on his

final voyage, removes its saddle and releases it into the countryside for one

last free run, before it is turned over to a new master.

It remains for the petty bureaucrats of Saint-Pierre to

savor the sour fruit of Neel’s execution, for what doth it profit a man to

rejoice over the death of a fellow human being? In the midst of all the visual

grandeur, Mr. Leconte has captured the central truth of the death penalty: It

is ordained by petty rulers, be they named Clinton or Bush, who dare to trifle

with the sacred essence of human life.

And (I Bet) The Oscar

Goes To …

Now is the winter of our discontent-at least with new

American movies, which, except for Hannibal

and Save the Last Dance , are being dumped into the few theatrical slots not being

taken up with Oscar nominees. So in this dry season, I choose to make my

journalistically premature Oscar predictions in a spirit of resigned futility.

When, I ask each year, is the Academy going to release vote totals for both the

nominations and the final choices? Just imagine, on election night, some clown

opening an envelope and announcing the winner as (pause): “George W. Bush!”-and

this without telling us if he won by 10 million votes or by 132 votes in a key

state.

The secrecy enshrouding vote totals enables the Academy to

pretend that their ultimate choices are the products of a single sensibility

called “Hollywood” when, in reality, the Oscar voters are clearly divided into

virtually warring factions. Indeed, there is a veritable chasm between the voters who chose to nominate Gladiator and those who chose Traffic or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . It is also a fallacy to suppose

that the Steven Soderbergh supporters will be fatally divided between the

adherents of Erin Brockovich on one

side and Traffic on the other.

Soderbergh may lose for Best Picture, but not because his vote is split between

these two very different movies.

Anyway, these are my winter book choices, proffered with the

disclaimer that readers are not to bet the rent money on my presumed

perspicacity. What follows, therefore, are my shots in the dark.

Best Picture : My

hunch is Erin Brockovich , though it

can be argued that the Academy will dole out Best Actress to Julia Roberts and

Best Supporting Actor to Albert Finney and give Gladiator the Ben Hur

Award as a low bow to the old Hollywood. Similarly, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon figures to be palmed off with the

Best Foreign Film Award. Traffic and Chocolat strike me as long shots.

Best Actor : Russell

Crowe would be a shoo-in after his unrewarded performances in The Insider (1999) and L.A. Confidential

(1997), if he didn’t have so much bad publicity on The National Enquirer level. Tom Hanks, by contrast, is the

All-American Boy-but is the Academy ready to give him a third Oscar? The other

contenders-Javier Bardem ( Before Night

Falls ), Ed Harris ( Pollock ) and

Geoffrey Rush ( Quills )-are in

variably kinky pictures with comparatively esoteric subjects.

Best Actress :

Julia Roberts is the clear favorite, though if enough Oscar voters have seen You Can Count on Me and Requiem for a Dream , Laura Linney and

Ellen Burstyn are dangerous rivals to the always vulnerable Ms. Roberts. Joan

Allen ( The Contender ) and Juliette

Binoche ( Chocolat ) are long shots.

Best Supporting Actor :

Albert Finney is the probable choice, though Benicio Del Toro in Traffic has been backed by the critics’

groups. Jeff Bridges in The Contender

may get a sympathy vote. Willem Dafoe in Shadow

of the Vampire is in a less admired picture than Mr. Del Toro’s Traffic , and Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator can only hope for a Gladiator sweep to bring him home.

Best Supporting

Actress : Judi Dench, alas, is the favorite for Chocolat . I would vote for Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock . Julie

Walters ( Billy Elliot ) and Kate

Hudson and Frances McDormand ( Almost

Famous ) perform in movies I liked less than almost everyone else, and so I

am prejudiced against the performers. I would have preferred to see Ms.

McDormand nominated for Wonder Boys .

Best Director :

Ang Lee ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon )

is given the edge over Steven Soderbergh because of the perceived split between

Mr. Soderbergh’s two vehicles. Though I don’t agree, the split argument may

work better for director than for picture. Ridley Scott’s only hope is a sweep

for Gladiator . Stephen Daltrey for Billy Elliot has almost no hope.

Original Screenplay :

Kenneth Lonergan ( You Can Count on Me ).

That’s the least the Academy can do for the best American movie of the year.

Adapted Screenplay :

Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jung for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon over Stephen Gagham for Traffic , but just barely. I would have

voted for Steve Kloves for Wonder Boys .

This is not the year for either Joel and Ethan Coen for O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Robert Nelson Jacobs for Chocolat .

Best Foreign Language

Film : Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

is heavily favored and should win, but if there is to be an upset of the

Taiwanese front-runner, it will probably come from France with The Taste of Others .

But then again, I could be wrong.