The Widow of Saint-Pierre (2000), Based on a True Story
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was the winner of the Best Foreign Language Golden Globe in 2001, but “The Widow of Saint-Pierre” was one of the nominees that year. Its stars, Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil and Emir Kusturica, were also nominated for various awards, with Auteuil picking up the Best Foreign Actor award at the Sant Jordi Awards in Barcelona.
This film was inspired by a true story that really took place in 1888-89, by no means a close depiction of what actually happened. Juliette Binoche plays Pauline. Everyone calls her Madame La. She is the wife of Jean (Auteuil’s character), the captain of the army stationed on the island. He is deeply in love with his wife. Truly. He can’t keep his hands off her when they’re alone or his eyes off her when they’re in public together. The wives of other officials wish their husbands were half as attentive in one light note of the film.
Emir Kusturica plays Neel Auguste, a man who is convicted of murder after he and his companion, Louis Ollivier (Reynald Bouchard), get drunk and murder an old man named Coupard. Neel is the one who actually stabbed Coupard and there’s some nonsense about cutting up his body to see whether he was fat or big that they actually got from the real story. Neel gets sentenced to death and Ollivier gets jail time.
Justice is served, only they can’t execute Neel because they happen to be without a guillotine at the moment and that is the only way that condemned men are allowed to be executed under French law. So they have to send for one. The “widow” in the title actually refers to the guillotine, although by the end of the movie, there are two more widows.
Ollivier dies on the way to the army barracks when rocks are thrown from windows causing a horse pulling the wagon to bolt. He hit his head when he fell out. So Neel gets locked up to await getting his head sliced off. For some reason, that is very upsetting to Madame La. She wants him to help her on a greenhouse project and Jean agrees to let him out if Neel wants to do it. Madame La tells Neel that she knows he was completely drunk when he killed Coupard and wouldn’t have done it otherwise. Now that’s he doesn’t drink anymore, she wants to prove to the town that Neel ain’t such a bad guy as all that.
In the meantime, a conflict over the way Jean has put his wife in charge of the prisoner grows between the Captain and the Governor. A suggestion to pardon Neel is vetoed and the guillotine is sent for. Madame La is well aware of her influence over her husband and tells a guard at one point that her husband does what she wants him to do.
Out of the three stars, you see a lot more of Juliette Binoche and Emir Kusturica than you do of Daniel Auteuil and there doesn’t seem to be any motivation to his character’s actions other than to make his wife happy. I think Binoche and Kusturica deserved to win an award for their performances more than Autueil, even though I like him a lot and he is the main reason I decided to watch this film. I found out about it on this list of 50 Period Romances available on Amazon Prime (which doesn’t mean you can’t see them anywhere else, of course).
Here is the information that I found about the true story:
From St. Pierre & Miquelon Business Law Handbook: “The only time the guillotine was ever used in North America was in Saint-Pierre in the late 19th century. Joseph Néel was convicted of killing Mr. Coupard on lle aux chiens on 30 December 1888, and executed by guillotine on 24 August 1889. This event was the inspiration for the film The Widow of Saint-Pierre (La Veuve de Saint-Pierre) released in 2000. The guillotine is now in a museum in Saint-Pierre….”
The entire “Affaire Neel” is told in French on boisdejustice.com. This is a 1938 account of what really happened. if you don’t read French, you can read an English retelling on The Dive Spell, where there are also pictures of the guillotine.