Published Mar 01, 2001Set in the remote colonial French island outpost of St. Pierre, off the coast of Newfoundland, in the mid-19th century, Patrice Leconte's story of murder, charity, forgiveness and redemption wrestles with the sometimes-opposing concepts of justice and law. In his acting debut, Bosnian director Emir Kusturica ("Black Cat, White Cat," "Underground") plays Neel Auguste, a fisherman who murders a co-islander in a drunken brawl. Condemned to death by guillotine, Auguste is placed in the care of the compassionate garrison captain, played by veteran French actor Daniel Auteuil ("Girl On the Bridge," "Sade"). Juliette Binoche ("Chocolat," "The English Patient") is the captain's adored and adoring wife, who befriends Auguste and works hardest for his rehabilitation. While waiting for France to find both a guillotine (called "the widow" in colloquial French) and someone willing to act as executioner, Auguste becomes a cherished part of the tiny community. Only the handful of officials become intent on seeing the law carried out to its fullest. Even the captain, who has grown to sympathise with his charge's case, comes to question the order to execute a rightfully convicted but truly decent man. Spurred on by of his wife's love and his love for her, he is torn between his duty and his conscience, leading, inevitably, to tragedy.
With the moral ambiguity the movie addresses as its theme, Leconte dresses the film in toned-down colours, with the limitless Atlantic sky and the immense ocean providing the grey backdrops. Interspersed with ominous cuts of a fast ship streaking through the bright and sunny Caribbean carrying an instrument of death, the film builds its tension as the opposing sides on St. Pierre entrench themselves into their positions regarding the prisoner. The island's "respectable" citizens deplore the captain's growing sympathy, mistakenly seen as his wife's influence. Her "modern ideas," they say, have bewitched the captain into forgetting his duty, even as metropolitan France undergoes violent revolutions and is clamping down hard on any signs of official liberalism. The ordinary men and women of St. Pierre grow to love the prisoner so much they narrowly miss being shot en masse by a nervous garrison, stayed only by the captain's steady courage.
Courage and love are central themes to this highly complex and vividly beautiful movie. The captain's and his wife's courage to pursue the righteousness of their cause even in the face of oncoming disaster for the sake of a man set to die power the emotional thrust of the film. Auguste calmly awaits his execution and even hastens it for the sake of his fellow islanders. Those most eager to see the sentence carried out are the officious and narrow-minded bureaucrats who are unwilling to do the dirty work of an executioner themselves.
Leconte's haunting, romantic and deeply moving film reveals characters that are far more interesting and complex than they seem. The three principals - the captain, his wife and the condemned - break the imposed limits of their station to create intensely human relationships that are, in the end, doomed. Leconte is so subtle at deftly handling the explosive subject he manages to avoid cheap sops to sentimentality while telling a tragic, but fact-based story.