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Lion's Gate presents
The Widow of St. Pierre (2001)

"People always change, no matter what. People can be evil one day, and good another. They change."
- Madame La (Juliette Binoche)

Review By: Dan Heaton  
Published: November 09, 2001

Stars: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica
Other Stars: Michael Duchaussey, Philippe Magnan, Reynald Bouchard
Director: Patrice Leconte

MPAA Rating: R for a scene of sensuality and brief violence
Run Time: 01h:52m:13s
Release Date: September 18, 2001
UPC: 031398774426
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-B+A- B-

DVD Review

Separated from their ship and stranded on the island of Saint Pierre et Miquelon, loutish fishermen Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturika) and Louis Olivier (Reynald Bouchard) have decided to have some fun. They stumble in a drunken stupor to harass a terrified local resident, but their joke takes a cruel turn with his murder. Appalled by this brutal act, the court quickly sentences them to death by the guillotineóthe weapon of choice in 1849. Do these men deserve this verdict for their vicious crime? Can individuals of this type truly change their lives and become amicable citizens? These are just a few of the questions explored in The Widow of St. PierreóPatrice Leconte's compelling tale of love, redemption, and the cruel realities of a "civilized" society.

Based on court records from an actual 1849 trial, this story explores the development of a reckless man into a respected member of the community. After a cruel accident swiftly removes Louis from this Earth, Neel is utterly alone and must face the reality of his impending death. Luck is on his side, though, as this execution is missing two key elements: a guillotine and an executioner. This difficulty postpones the act indefinitely, and kind Madame La (Juliet Binoche) sees an opportunity to help this troubled soul. Her husband Jean (Daniel Auteuil) supervises the prison, and she asks him to give Neel a chance and let him work in her garden. This is a strange request and he probably does not favor it, but Jean accepts because of his unflinching love for his beautiful wife. With this chance, Neel changes his habits and begins to gain favor with the townspeople. Unfortunately, this grace period will not last forever, and the guillotine is on the way.

Director Patrice Leconte (Ridicule, Girl on a Bridge) excels in creating a unique, energetic perspective for even the simplest scenes. The camera constantly moves and brings us closer to the story and the primary characters. During the first meeting between Neel and Madame La, the perspective slowly pulls into the extravagant room and reveals a world unknown to this fisherman. Instead of using the basic shot, counter-shot structure, Leconte makes the moment tingle with the excitement of Neel's new opportunity. The courtroom scenes include an eerie, foreboding tone that creates horror for both the murder victim and the killers facing their own sad fate.

Neel, Madame La, and Jean form an intriguing love triangle that differs considerably from the usual simpler relationships on the screen. Neel possesses an easily seen adoration for Madame La and her humane activities, and he will do anything to gain her approval. However, he does not seek a physical bond as much as an emotional connection. She believes in her convictions about life and the ability to change, but this is not the only reason for her actions. Neel has an almost childlike innocence that combines with his gargantuan physical presence to create an intriguing individual. Jean bases nearly all of his decisions on just one factor: his infinite love for Madame La. His kind actions could cost him dearly both professionally and personally, but everything is worthwhile because it stems from his wife's requests.

Emir Kusturika (Underground) has spent his film career directing a series of impressive pictures, but he has never acted before in any feature. Also, French is not his primary spoken language. This makes his engaging performance even more remarkable. While viewing this story, it is difficult to imagine anyone else in this challenging role. Neel does not have a tremendous amount of lines, but he exudes an imposing presence and honesty that strikes a startling emotional chord. Daniel Auteuil (The Closet, Girl on the Bridge) and Juliet Binoche (The English Patient, Chocolat) both utilize their considerable acting talents and create memorable and three-dimensional characters. Jean and Madame La's relationship works and is fascinating because they trust each other unconditionally and realistically.

The Widow of St. Pierre draws much of its success from a believable environment that conveys a realistic atmosphere of the 19th-century town. Gorgeous and precise cinematography presents the brutal, foggy landscape in perfect harmony with the elegant, winter landscape. Whenever events appear too optimistic, Leconte quickly jolts us back into reality with one vivid, spine-chilling shot. Within a ship sent from France, the "widow"óanother word for guillotineórests inside and is ready to destroy Neel. Although it is an inanimate object, this device exudes considerable menace and generates a dark cloud over the positive events occurring on the shores.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The Widow of St. Pierre comes in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents the beautiful scenery of St. Pierre et Miquelon with impressive grandeur. The bright snowflakes fall in front of the remote town and sparkle with light. The picture does have some minor defects that arise a few times. Also, some of the darker indoor scenes exude a decent amount of grain, especially early in the story. These problems are fairly insignificant, however, because of the unbelievable outdoor scenes. This transfer combines nicely with Leconte's talented eye to create an excellent visual experience.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This disc includes a lush 5.1-channel Dolby Digital French transfer that presents the story with significant depth and force. The sad, emotional score flows nicely throughout the sound field and really draws you into the moving tale. This track wonderfully conveys the swirling winds and falling snow from every side of the room. While Madame La and Neel Auguste trudge across the cold winter ground, the pristine audio helps to create the perfect atmosphere.

An English 2.0-channel stereo track also is available on this release. While I personally abhor watching dubbed films (unless it's for comic amusement), this is a valuable inclusion. This allows viewers not accustomed to reading subtitles a chance to enjoy this intriguing movie.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring South of Heaven, West of Hell and Songcatcher
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Alpha
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 0h:38m:08s

Extra Extras:
  1. Interviews with Patrice Leconte, Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, and Emir Kusturika
Extras Review: The Widow of St. Pierre features an impressive collection of cast and crew interviews that provides plenty of insight into their feelings about the film. The lengthiest segment (15 minutes) comes from director Patrice Leconte, who describes his fascination with the story's fatalistic perspective. He definitely possesses a passion for cinema and really strives to create a unique project. Although this fails to match up with a feature commentary track, it still gives us a nice glimpse into the director's mind. Juliette Binoche covers her interest in the topic and its lack of an easy moral, and Daniel Auteil praises its pure, uncommon nature. Finally, Emir Kustericka discusses acting for the first time and the differences when working in front of the camera. The entire section runs for about 34 minutes, and it supplements the film nicely with some compelling information.

This disc also contains a brief making-of featurette showcases 9 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage. This piece varies drastically from the usual promotional fluff because there is little actual structure or narration. We basically witness shooting from the eyes of an uninvolved bystander and view a few conversations between the stars and director. In fact, several minutes exist with no sound at all and simply provide visuals of filming in the snowy landscape.

Clicking on the Lion's Gate logo will reveal the theatrical trailer, which comes in a decent 1.85:1 widescreen format. Previews for Songcatcher and South of Heaven, West of Hell follow in full-frame versions.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

The Widow of St. Pierre ranks as one of my most pleasant surprises of the past year. While the preview trailer appears to promise a simpler, period-style love story, this film delivers an energetic, heart-wrenching experience. The acting performances are top-notch across the board, and Patrice Leconte brings everything together with very effective directly. I highly recommend this release and hope to see more of his films in the near future.


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