But Leconte provides an antidote to such a gloomy outlook, being a prolific and distinctive filmmaker with a loyal audience without following fellow Frenchman Luc Besson's attempts to equal America-style flash. Not that Leconte's approach isn't accessible. His work tends to be fluid and vivid, frequently offering shots or tableaux that linger in your mind's eye like an afterimage. Two of the most memorable are the moonlit voyeur of Monsieur Hire and a young boy's first sexual stirrings at the hands of a buxom haircutter in The Hairdresser's Husband.
Similarly striking images are plentiful in Leconte's latest release, The Widow of Saint-Pierre, including fishing boats finding their way through dense fog, a dashing captain (Daniel Auteuil) riding a black steed, Juliet Binoche dressed to mourn and, most outlandishly, a cafe on wagon wheels rolling out of control through the middle of a town. But while Leconte's storytelling panache remains on display, his choice of material fails to measure up to it.
Saint-Pierre is a small island community off the coast of Newfoundland, and the film is based on an actual incident from the 1850s. We begin with hulking August (Emir Kusturica) and a drunken friend committing a gruesome murder without any real justification. The trouble starts, though, when August is sentenced to death, as the island lacks its own guillotine or any other viable means of carrying out the sentence.
With a guillotine en route from Martinique, August is kept in the custody of the captain of the guard (Auteuil), and he becomes something of a project for the captain's wife, who has the musical nickname "Madame La" (Binoche). With the trusting soul of a Pollyanna, Madame La believes the condemned man can still make a contribution, and soon she's accompanying him, unescorted, on odd jobs throughout the community.
Madame La's faith and August's good deeds turn the townsfolk from vengeful to sympathetic, but the ruling officials, led by Michel Duchaussoy's fussy governor, require the sentence be carried out to validate their own power. Facing a conflict of interest between his duty and his beloved wife, the captain embarks on a course that's ultimately self-destructive.
Leconte's films often involve some kind of obsessive behavior, demonstrated here in the captain, who has too much honor for his own good. Auteuil portrays him as a man of smoldering passions and such impeccable integrity that he out-mans the rest of the village. As one wife remarks, "He cuckolds our men without even screwing us."
Madame La is written as a free spirit whose idealism gets the better of her common sense, but Binoche doesn't give her the kind of spontaneity and joie de vivre that such a role calls for. Surprisingly, she's more reserved and remote than in her delightful turn in the insubstantial Chocolat.
Leconte ably sustains suspenseful moments, shifting from gliding steadicam to jittery hand-held camera when most appropriate, and the title itself primes you for some kind of disaster (only after the fact did I learn that "widow" is French slang for "guillotine"). The film has a Dickensian eye for details, like the town leaders' dedication to propriety and picnics, or the ratty-looking immigrant all but blackmailed into serving as the town's executioner.
The most troublesome element is film director Emir Kusturica (When Father Was Away on Business) in his acting debut as August. He's rough and imposing, with a bit of Gerard Depardieu's physical presence, but he emotes so little that he could as easily be a sociopath as a reformed citizen. When he joins the work detail that transports the guillotine to shore, he betrays no feelings about abetting his own death warrant.
It's interesting to note that both The Widow of Saint-Pierre and Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark attack the death penalty and take place in North America. The Widow of Saint-Pierre means to challenge the concept of capital punishment but only affirms an audience's beliefs.