The Widow of Saint-Pierre (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I'm not sure, but this very good film may qualify as the saddest, most depressing film in history.
Here's the idea. In the 19th century, a drunken man commits a murder on an obscure island off the coast of Newfoundland. The island is under French law, so he is tried and is sentenced to death by the guillotine. This presents a problem for a tiny community lost in the North Atlantic. They don't have a guillotine, and they don't have an executioner, so they have to start hunting around for one of each. This is not as easy as it sounds. The only available guillotine in the Americas appears to be in Martinique, so it will probably take months to get news to Martinique,  then ship the guillotine back to the North Atlantic. 


Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil have a sex scene. The beginning is far from the camera, but his buns and her right breast are briefly visible. The scene ends in close-up, but with their chests pressed tightly together.
During the hiatus, the wife of the captain of the local guard takes an interest in the prisoner, and they establish a unique relationship in which he becomes her protégé. She uses him to do some work for her, but also teaches him, and gets to know him as a man. As time progresses, the captain comes to trust the man and his wife's judgment, so more and more liberties are allowed, and the prisoner is actually allowed to perform duties in the community.

The man undergoes a transformation. At first, the wife says "you know, if you tried to escape, my husband would be executed in your place", but she comes to have so much compassion for him that by the end of the film, she is actually urging him to escape, with her husband's permission. He thinks about it, actually starts, but turns himself back in, unable to cause problems for the two people who have shown him so much tenderness. Meanwhile, the condemned man makes himself useful in the community, and does many good deeds, until he is beloved by nearly all.

The guillotine finally arrives from Martinique, but now there are two additional problems.

First, nobody in the community will agree to be the executioner, and superstitious sea captains will not allow executioners on their ships.

Second, the captain has come to the conclusion that the man who was sentenced to death is not the same man he has to execute, so he refuses to order or allow his men to participate in the execution.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.78:1

  • four interviews with cast members

  • Making-of featurette

  • choice of English dubbing or subtitles

How will it get resolved? I'm not going to tell you, but remember that I said this was about the most depressing film I've ever seen. And I've seen most of Bergman's films. On the sadness meter, this makes Cries and Whispers seem about as depressing as "Boeing, Boeing". With any possible character, assume about the worst thing that could happen to them, and you'll get the drift.

By the way, if I had to name the three best-photographed movies I have seen in the past two years, they would be Crouching Tiger, The Patriot, and this film. Yes, it is that good. Major league good. You may recall that Patrice Leconte's previous film, The Girl on the Bridge, was also dazzling.

Many filmmakers seem to have lost it by the time they reach their 50's, but Leconte is probably doing the best films of his life, and some of the best films coming out of any country, although this one was not designed for mainstream tastes. 

The captain's wife spends half of the movie on the verge of tears, and the other half actually in tears. Gee, I wonder which French actress got cast in this role. I'm not sure if Guinness has a record for "most screen time of close-ups on the verge of tears or actually in tears", but Juliette Binoche must own this record by about thirty times more than the nearest competitor.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3/4

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 92% positive, 94% from the top critics

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.3 
  • With their dollars ... made for about $15 million dollars, it grossed about $3 million in the USA, a bit more than that in France.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B. Morally complex, honorable, achingly beautiful, heartbreakingly sad, undeniably steeped in the 19th century. Perhaps not your kind of movie, but a brilliant realization of what it set out to do.

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