THE WIDOW OF ST. PIERRE directed by Patrice Leconte, written by Claude Faraldo, produced by Gilles Legrand and Frédéric Brillion, with Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil and Emir Kusturica. 108 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (March 9). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 81. Rating: NN it's 1850, on the island of st. Pierre in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the French military commander (Daniel Auteuil) has a problem. A murderer (Emir Kusturica) has been convicted and condemned to death, but there's no guillotine and no executioner.
Not being a cruel man, the commander lets his wife (Juliette Binoche) use the convict as an assistant in her garden and on errands. As the murder was a drunken aberration -- he's really a nice guy -- he eventually becomes a beloved figure on the island.
The title is a play on words: the characters refer to the guillotine as "the widow." Eventually, of course, it shows up, apparently on the same schedule as the package Tom Hanks took forever to deliver in Cast Away. But nobody on the island will act as executioner, and the commander decides that he can't in good conscience bring the killer to the scaffold. Now the story really begins.
Director Patrice Leconte has made some very good films, notably Monsieur Hire, and he has a fine time here with the wind-swept snowscapes of St. Pierre and Binoche's finely sculpted bone structure.
But The Widow Of St. Pierre is rather less than the sum of its parts. It's dramatically underpowered, with conflicts that begin -- the commander doesn't like the groundless gossip that surfaces around his wife and the convict, for example -- but never explode, thanks to the rigid etiquette of the island's elite.
The most noteworthy element of the film is the oddity of the casting. The convict is played by Emir Kusturica, better known as the director of Underground and The Time Of The Gypsies and a fixture on the international festival circuit. JH*