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
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
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.
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.