Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: The Widow of Saint-Pierre

By Mike Everleth ⋅ March 2, 2001

Only in a culture as selfish, self-obsessed and self-absorbed as ours could a device like the cell phone flourish.

To use a dorky Star Trek analogy, the characters on these shows use their communicators, the 24th-century version of cell phones, either only in dire situations or for absolutely necessary communication. You never see a Starfleet officer on an alien planet talking with someone back on the ship like, “Yeah, I’m going to be beaming back to the ship in two minutes. What’s Neelix serving for dinner? Creamed asparagus? Maybe I’ll just replicate myself a cheeseburger. Boy, it’s hot down here. I’ll see you in a minute.” No, it’s usually like, “Beam me outta here before a Borg fries my ass!”

Cell phones can be great tools. The other weekend I was sitting in a NYC park and some old drunk bastard started waving a giant knife around. In about 2 seconds, at least 2 dozen people whipped out their cell phone and quickly dialed 911. For the record, the dude wasn’t really dangerous, just some drunk moron proving his machismo. I felt more sorry for him than threatened for my life. That didn’t prevent 3 cop cars from showing up in about a minute, however.

But walk down any block of NYC at any time of day and there’s always at least one, but usually a minimum of three, oblivious jerks having some sort of idiotic conversation on their little toy, with no concept of where they’re going or that they may be in somebody else’s way.

Or, outside of the city, I find it horrific that there actually has to be laws written to tell people not to chat on the phone while driving. Yeah, it’s a good idea to operate a 1-ton vehicle made of steel and glass roaring across the Earth anywhere from 5-80 MPH while holding a tiny piece of plastic that makes barely audible noises up to your ear.

Granted, people don’t need a cell phone to be rude and inconsiderate or drive recklessly, but I think they’re a good example of the increasing selfishness of our society. Of course, I don’t own one and don’t plan to, so maybe I’d change my tune if I did. But probably not because I barely use my regular phone. Plus, I don’t consider myself to be so important that the world needs to reach me 24 hours a day. If I’m hanging out with friends somewhere, my attention is usually focused on them. I don’t feel the need to run outside from a bar or a restaurant and talk to somebody else on a piece of plastic.

Even I’m not too sure what this rant has to do with THE WIDOW OF SAINT-PIERRE. I suppose Juliette Binoche acts in an unselfish way to rehabilitate a prisoner on death row by having him do odd jobs in the community. But we’re never really too sure what her motives ever are nor why she’s so obsessed with this guy.

Personally, I am very anti-death penalty, but this film made me question that belief, which is odd because it’s obviously an anti-death penalty film. The basic plot is that in 1849 on a remote island French colony, a man commits a senseless murder in a drunken stupor. There’s absolutely no doubt about his guilt and he’s sentenced to death. Except, the colony has no guillotine with which to execute him, so he’s locked up until one arrives from France. However, he barely spends one night in jail before the police captain’s wife (Binoche) asks him to help her build a greenhouse in the courtyard. As Binoche and the prisoner’s relationship grow, she gets him to work for other people in the colony, too. He then becomes so beloved by the community that nobody wants to execute him when the guillotine finally does arrive.

While I’m also not too keen on the American prison system either, I didn’t feel too good at WIDOW’s prisoner not really enduring any kind of punishment. Sure, he wasn’t getting paid for his work and he still had to sleep in a dungeon-esque prison cell every night, but at least he got to go out everyday, flirt with the police captain’s wife and even, when the chance arose, to have sex with some of the local townswomen.

I do think prison should be more about rehabilitation than pure punishment, but I started to get worried that this guy, if the guillotine never arrived, would’t have really suffered much, if at all, for his crime. I believe the film took a little bit of a cheat by having the murder victim be a guy who lived alone whom nobody mourned. Everybody falls in love with the murderer, but not one person missed the guy who died? I thought the script was being too convenient by eliminating this aspect. In that regard, WIDOW OF SAINT PIERRE isn’t as successful an anti-death penalty movie as DEAD MAN WALKING, which I really thought presented all sides of the issue in an even-handed manner.

However, there’s also a lot more going on in WIDOW than just the execution issue. Binoche is a progressive thinker in a stodgy old town whose husband, who looks like a serious French Sonny Bono, stands by her no matter what because of his love for her. I also really enjoyed the character of the murderer who, while fearing his own death, always seems resigned to his fate. That was a nice touch.