Under the guillotine

Under the guillotine

Brian D. Johnson March 5 2001
Under the guillotine

Under the guillotine

Brian D. Johnson March 5 2001

Under the guillotine

Brian D. Johnson

Seen any good movies lately?” I get asked that a lot. At parties, in elevators ... at the urinal. And even though I usually see three or four new movies a week, too often the answer is “Well, no.” Recendy, however, I saw a string of wonderful movies. Old movies. Screened by Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto, they included two Douglas Sirk melodramas from the 1950s with Rock Hudson, All that Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, and two ’60s gems from Britain—Billy Liar, the movie that made Julie Christie a star, and Darling, which won her an Oscar. All four films are gorgeously photographed, shrewdly scripted—and inlaid with ironic social commentary that seems weirdly stereoscopic when viewed through several decades of history. These pictures have stood the test of time. Today, we treasure them as “art” (I even saw them at a theatre in an art gallery), but in their day they were popular entertainment.

Sirk, a German director who fled his homeland to escape Hitler, once recalled: “In Hollywood, people kept saying to me, ‘Doug, don’t be arty.’ This was a word I had never heard before because it doesn’t exist in any other language.” Sirk took art for granted: it was simply part of the job.

Today, however, the gulf between art-house fare and Hollywood entertainment has never seemed wider. Occasionally, a movie will bridge the distance, a Traffic or a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but more often movies are fatally typecast as art or trash. As a critic, one day you are rhapsodizing over the narcotic beauty of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, while despairing that it may be too “arty” to find an audience. Next you’re heading off to see Keanu Reeves cuddle up with CharlizeTheron in a terminal cancer romance called Sweet November—hoping, in vain, that it will not be as bad as it sounds.

But then a surprise comes along: a wonderful movie that is neither straining to reach the altar of high art nor stooping to conquer the megaplex. And it comes from Canada, sort of. Set on the French island of St-Pierre, off the coast of Newfoundland, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre ( The Widow of SaintPierre) is a handsome and compelling epic inspired by a curious bit of history.

This Canada-France co-production tells the story of a gende soul named Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica) who is con-

demned to death after he kills a man during a drunken escapade.

There is no guillotine on the island, so Auguste must wait for French authorities to deliver one. He is placed in the custody of the island’s enlightened military captain (Daniel Auteuil), and his compassionate wife, Madame La (Juliette Binoche), takes a keen interest in the prisoner, who becomes her gardener. Although Auguste sleeps in his cell, he is allowed to roam free.

And through various good deeds, he becomes a local hero— complicating the issue of his impending execution.

Like the fatalistic novels of Thomas Hardy, The Widow of Saint-Pierre is about a pre-modern woman falling out of sync with her times. It offers an unusual triangle: while Madame La’s empathy for her protégé has overtones of high romance, her loving husband never shows a twinge of jealousy. French

director Patrice Leconte (Monsieur Hire, Girl on the Bridge) makes all this seem not only

Juliette Binoche takes the high road in a smart, austere epic

plausible but authentic. And the drama acquires irresistible momentum as he balances its peculiar subdeties with images of stark beauty. Shifting from Rembrandt-dark interiors to the electric-blue shock of sky and sea, Leconte’s compositions juxtapose fate and freedom with the heightened reality of a Colville painting: the captain’s black horse being hoisted from a three-masted schooner; an austere picnic unfolding over barren rocks in the fog; a runaway house on rollers careening down a street; a sled carrying Binoche across a Zhivago-like expanse of ice.

Each of the actors smoulders with quiet strength. Auteuil plays a man of passion locked in an officer’s uniform. Kusturica, a Bosnian director making his debut as an actor, brings a brute innocence to Auguste. And Binoche creates another of her resilient/vulnerable renegades, desire and fear warring just under the surface. She received an Oscar nomination for a seductive but less complicated performance in Chocolat, as an aphrodisiac merchant in another French village. But Chocolat is an ersatz European film, with a Disney glaze of magic realism. The Widow of Saint-Pierre is both more real and more magical, a razored slice of Old Europe in the New World.

And despite the subtitles, there’s nothing “arty” about it.