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Movie Review

The Widow of St. Pierre

MPAA Rating: R for a scene of sexuality and brief violence

Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Older Teen to Adult
Foreign / Drama
1 hr. 52 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
Relevant Issues
Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche in The Widow of St. Pierre
Featuring: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica, Michel Duchaussoy, Reynald Bouchard, Christian Charmetant
Director: Patrice Leconte
Producer: Frederic Brillion, Gilles Legrand
Distributor: Pathe Distribution, Lions Gate Films

“The Widow of St. Pierre” begins with a demonic act of murder and ends with another kind of demonic murder. This foreign film is a true story of redemption, penance, and ultimately… the inability of the powerful to relinquish power. it’s an exploration of the death penalty and a passionate old-fashioned story of idealistic people who are perhaps too idealistic for their own good.

Daniel Auteuil in The Widow of St. PierreWhen the story begins, Neel and his friend are drunk. Their drunkenness causes them to commit a cruel and senseless act: they murder a boat captain named Coupard. Neel is sentenced to be beheaded (his co-murderer dies in an accident.) But since the nearest guillotine is away in Martinique, and since the small French-Canadian town of St Pierre has no executioner—Neel will have to wait in the town’s prison barracks until the problem is solved. The Captain of the prison is Jean, (Daniel Auteuil). Jean’s wife, Pauline or Madame La, (Juliette Binoche) is a forward thinking woman whom Jean adores… even to the point of allowing her to commit herself to rehabilitating Neel. Pauline takes Neel on a journey of penance through the small fishing-town. His penitential work eventually wins him the admiration and forgiveness of the townspeople. But to the more powerful of the community, this is not the kind of thing a military officer’s wife should be doing.

There are two scenes early in the film in which we see the heinousness of murder. In a courtroom scene, Neel explains why he kills Coupard. His shame and shock at his own behavior is something one rarely sees in modern movies. In another scene, after Neel is sentenced to death, he is taken from the courthouse to the prison barracks. The crowds gather around to view him as he passes. The sight of a murderer is so offensive to the town populace… and the murderer’s own self-loathing is palpable, one is almost tempted to say, “Ah, the days when Shame was a good thing.”

When Pauline, Madame La, meets Neel, she is so nervous she breaks a teapot. She has never seen an aberration of nature like this before. A real murderer is in her house. But there is something else going on. Why is she so nervously excited? Is she nervous because she (A) has met someone truly evil (B) is attracted to Neel or (C) is pumped by the idea of getting a guinea pig to rehabilitate. The movie doesn’t come right out and say. The movie takes place in a time when good women would not allow themselves to even explore an attraction to someone who is plainly evil. Besides, Pauline and her husband, Jean adore each other. In fact, her husband adores her a little too much. Why does he allow her to set such tragic events in motion? Good motives and human weakness are mixed together.

The story is not explicitly Christian. Neither the bad guys nor the good guys are Christians. In the true historical fact, it is possible that Madame La was quite a Christian. But that is not something we will see in a film nowadays. In this film she simply says that “a person can be bad one day and good the next.” After several months, the townspeople resist sending Neel to “The Widow” (another word for the Guillotine.) But the powers that be—the rich, the powerful, the keepers of the Law—want Neel executed. Why? The bad people in the film are guilty of being selfish and egomaniacal. They care more about their reputations than they do for the life of another human being. Neel, the condemned man, can die to himself and walk shamefacedly through town in an attempt to make up for his sins. Yet the powerful mayor cannot bring himself to change his mind. His reputation and his ego are at stake. Their sense of the Law and their idea of being Frenchmen in the wild outposts will not make them budge.

“The Widow of St. Pierre” is sure to provoke discussion among the people who see it. What exactly is going on in Pauline’s mind? And what do we really think of forgiveness? Are Pauline, Jean and Neel too good for their own good? (Remember the cynical verse in Ecclesiastes: “Do not be righteous overmuch; why should you destroy yourself?”)

Fortunately, the movie steers clear of making the bad guys guilty of Christianity. In real life, Biblical Christians are on either side of the controversy. Many legalistic Biblical Christians cry out for the blood of the condemned, citing the “The Eye for an Eye law.” Other Biblical Christians who believe in the power of God’s spirit to change human hearts often speak against the death penalty. “The Widow of St. Pierre” is a good reminder that all have sinned (Romans 3:23). Neel’s goodness at the end of the movie is not explicitly linked to salvation. There are no religious elements in the film. The point remains that a bad man sentenced to a crime became a good man at the end. Some might question the kindness of making someone virtuous simply to have them die. After all, what’s the use? But for those Christians who believe in hell, salvation, penance, and redemption, there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun.

The story is a true story, and contains many subtle obsessive unsaid things which may or may not have existed in the real situation. The movie reminds us that honorable people—the salt of the Earth—are not perfect. They have underlying psychological and emotional issues. But perfect emotional sanity isn’t the important thing. The work of salvation is rarely done by perfect people. But it is always done by committed people. The movie contains one love scene between husband and wife. There is no profanity.

In French with English subtitles.

Viewer Comments
I would like to propose that this film has much to say about Christianity. “Madame La’s” motivation is really the way Christ has admonished us to treat the “least of them”. Indeed, that is how we will be judged on that last day. It was refreshing to see a film that does not fall into “Hollywood” cliché’s. A husband and wife who powerfully and sacrificially love each other. A woman and the man she is trying to help do not fall into each others arms with unbridled passion. The Captian, a strong man of honor who can let his thinking evolve on to a higher plain. A decidedly “unhappy” ending. We are told, in the Letter of James, “…Mercy triumphs over judgment!” Just think what a Kingdom of God it could be if more Christians would live out the teachings of Jesus in this quiet non self-aggrandizing way!
My Ratings: [Excellent! / 5]
—Lillian Calkins, age 45