The central crisis of "The Widow of Saint-Pierre," a French film from director Patrice Laconte, is the planned execution of a murderer, but the movie is less interested in examining capital punishment than in lauding the virtues of honor and stifled passion. Its romantic plot is all about savoring the sweet (for the viewer) agony of unexpressed love and undeserved punishment. Extended silences punctuate the script, mirroring the quiet, snow-blanketed landscape of its Newfoundland island setting. These pauses are also a strategy for getting around saying very much. This movie relies on broad strokes, not nuanced analysis.
Set in 1850, "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" looks beautiful and stately yet approachable, much like its star, Juliette Binoche, who regularly supplies an extra beat of edgy emotion to her roles. Binoche plays Madame La, a woman who, as one stiff-collared town official puts it, "has such modern ideas." These ideas boil down to being straightforward in her conversation and actions, qualities encouraged by her husband, the Captain (Daniel Auteuil, who worked with Laconte on Girl on the Bridge). The Captain and Madame La enjoy a rather un-19th-century marriage and a hungry sex life.
Nonetheless, the story depends on certain Victorian emotions: This is the kind of movie where Madame La's nerves get wracked by the mere sight of a murderer. The secondary characters mostly follow this mannered, proper code. For example, the men gathered in a smoking room can't fathom why Madame La married beneath her station. "She lets her passions guide her," one man explains, to which another offers the type of stern warning that serves to succinctly sum up Madame La's predicament: "Let's hope her 'passions' don't take her too far."
All this disproving talk comes after Madame La befriends the shaggy murderer Neel Auguste (Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica, in his acting debut), whose crime was not one of passion but of drunken stupor. Laconte stages an impressive early sequence where Neel and his accomplice are transported from the court to the jail to await, respectively, death and deportation; the camera regularly gives us Neel's point of view as he's sitting on the rickety horse-drawn cart, his eyes scanning the faces of the townfolk who watch from doorways and windows, growing ever more abusive.
The Captain is in charge of Neel's custody, and after Madame La asks the prisoner to help her build a greenhouse, the residents grow to accept him, then even admire him. He does manual labor around town and then matter-of-factly returns to his cell -- his unlocked cell. The townfolk have plenty of time to become fond of him, since Neel can't be executed until France locates a spare guillotine and puts it on a boat bound for Saint-Pierre. The problem never becomes more complicated than this: The residents like Neel and don't want him killed; the town officials won't budge on his sentence. As the Captain's superior says of Neel, "His popularity is a nuisance."
At heart a melodramatic epic, "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" uses a heavy hand. As Neel becomes more of a part of the community, the action is interspersed with shots of the boat carrying the guillotine -- which might as well be captioned "Impending Doom." Likewise, scenes regularly end with a long, meaningful stare. But the film manages to be restrained, too, and Auteuil in particular gives an impressive, layered performance. The movie won't prompt debate -- Neel is sympathetic basically from the get-go, so we never feel as if he has been "redeemed." But time spent in the company of such a professional, accomplished director and his marvelous cast is time well spent.