Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: R for adult situations
Run Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Unconcealed passion meets fundamental destiny in this moody and provocative romantic epic about a liberated woman torn between love and obligation in 19th century France.
The incongruity of a remote and primitive French island off the coast of Newfoundland, and the emotionally-charged events that transpire are a fine coupling, indeed. Juliette Binoche is Madame La, the headstrong wife of an enlightened military commandant (Daniel Auteuil), known simply as The Captain. Life on Saint-Pierre is a simple, hard-working existence. When one of the island’s inhabitants is senselessly murdered during a drunken altercation, the accused killers are sentenced to death. One dies in a freak accident shortly after sentencing, and the other (Emir Kusturica as Neel Auguste) is incarcerated, waiting for the arrival of a guillotine (in old French slang referred to as “the widow”) from a slow boat sailing from Martinique.
Given that the weapon of choice will take many months to arrive, Madame La sees no point in keeping Auguste idle and captive. With the blessing of her husband, she offers him the option of staying productive by helping her maintain her greenhouse during the long, severe winter months. Auguste accepts, and a protégé is born. Little by little, Auguste endears himself to the community by performing a series of strenuous tasks, not to mention a succession of brave and heroic acts. The Captain, who worships his compassionate bride, supports the curious relationship, much to the displeasure of the island’s intolerant bureaucrats.
This is a project so resonant with pain and pleasure that I was awash in tears at the climax. Director Patrice Leconte (of my favorite “Girl on the Bridge”) works his cine magic oh-so subtly, but no less vividly. The chemistry between Binoche and Auteuil is warm and sensual, unleashing a freedom and independence unusual for the day. Their heat is all the more erotic considering the juxtaposition of their passion and the puritanical costuming and bulky sub-zero weather garb. Kusturica is that cinematic oddity, a celebrated Yugoslavian director (“Black Cat, White Cat”) but first time actor, whose natural poise in front of the camera is both strong and shrewd. The mounting tension of a growing attraction between Madame La and Auguste, the agonizing delay of the guillotine and a volunteer executioner, and the righteous controversy that galvanizes an island are all extremely powerful. Film’s look is bleak but lush, dramatically shifting from season to season.
Can a condemned man be redeemed by good deeds alone? A significant theme, stunningly addressed in this French tour de force.