Nice tale - shame about the telling

La Veuve de Saint-Pierre (15) <i>Patrice Leconte, 112 mins</i>
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It feels like only a few weeks since I reviewed Patrice Leconte's last film, La Fille sur le pont. In fact, I've just this minute checked and it literally was only a few weeks. Ten, to be precise. Here, then, is a French director whose two latest films have been released in insular, subtitle-resistant Britain within the space of a couple of months. Such a thing can't have happened - if it has ever happened at all, which I seriously doubt - since the halcyon heyday of the nouvelle vague, when new works by Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and the like benefited from the ultimately short-lived xenophilia of British distributors.

It feels like only a few weeks since I reviewed Patrice Leconte's last film, La Fille sur le pont. In fact, I've just this minute checked and it literally was only a few weeks. Ten, to be precise. Here, then, is a French director whose two latest films have been released in insular, subtitle-resistant Britain within the space of a couple of months. Such a thing can't have happened - if it has ever happened at all, which I seriously doubt - since the halcyon heyday of the nouvelle vague, when new works by Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and the like benefited from the ultimately short-lived xenophilia of British distributors.

I have to confess, I don't get it. I find it impossible to imagine someone saying, "Let's go see the new Leconte", the way we used to say, "Let's go see the new Fellini". Of Fellini it could (ungenerously) be argued that, when you had seen one of his films, you had seen them all. With Leconte, when you've seen one, you've seen one. Why so anonymous an artist should be whisked through the fast lane is a mystery to me.

To be sure, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre has one incontrovertible asset: a totally original plot, albeit one based at least partially on a true incident. In 1850, on the inhospitably flinty island of Saint-Pierre, off Newfoundland, a big hulking lunk of a fisherman, Neel (played by the Serbian director Emir Kusturica), stabs an elderly inhabitant during a drunken binge. Saint-Pierre being a French colony, and the favoured instrument of execution being thus the guillotine - the punning title's "widow" - Neel is duly sentenced to be beheaded, a fate he accepts with dozy placidity. The problem is that, since no islander has ever been executed, there is no guillotine on Saint-Pierre. It has to be shipped in from Martinique; and, by the time it arrives, all of eight months later, Neel - who has meanwhile become the protégé of the wife (an austerely glamorous Juliette Binoche) of the island's prison warden (a hammy Daniel Auteuil) - is not merely a reformed character but something of a local hero.

Well, I've never come across that plot before, and the main source of enjoyment afforded by the film is the increasingly rarefied one of wondering what's going to happen next. Since, with most contemporary movies, it's far easier to guess what's going to happen next than to recall what happened last, that's a real virtue; and it means that, on a superficial level, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre is a fairly engrossing cross between Truffaut's The Story of Adÿle H. (about the unrequited passion of Victor Hugo's daughter for a young English soldier in 19th-century Nova Scotia) and a conte cruel by Maupassant.

So, a good story well told? No, a good story badly told. Imagine, if you can (I can't), the oxymoronic concept of an ill-written literary classic and you'll have a fair idea of what's wrong with La Veuve de Saint-Pierre. As a prestigious, luxuriously upholstered television serial, it might have passed muster. The cinema screen, though, is a gargantuan magnifying glass that not only exposes but aggrandises the kind of flaws which tend to go unnoticed on its smaller simulacrum.

The least of these are flaws of performance. Binoche, who looks for much of the time as if she were about to pose for Ingres, is as always an enigmatically intense actress, and the supporting players are lively and vivid. But Auteuil overplays his underplaying, and the eccentric casting of Kusturica, a sleepy-eyed stumblebum, strikes one as little more than a gimmick. Since, these days, Gérard Depardieu turns up in every second French film, whether there's a role for him or not, why on earth isn't he in this one, which really does need him?

Then there are flaws of psychology. One of the film's least credible scenes, early in the narrative, has Binoche - otherwise so poised, so enviably aloof - coquettishly aflutter at the prospect of serving tea to an oafishly bovine murderer. How come she already sees in him what he's revealed to be, for the rest of us, only much later in the film? Is she in love with him or isn't she? Why does her poor husband humour her every exasperating caprice, even to the point of sacrificing his career? And is it asking too much that, sooner or later, we spectators be let into these secrets?

Finally, there's the flaw that fewer and fewer film-goers care about (but the critic has to go through the motions nevertheless). With this type of romantic costume drama, one has come to expect a stately, even glacial visual style to match the high-falutin goings-on. That's certainly not the case here. Leconte was apparently his own cameraman and, my, did he have the fidgets! It never stops, it never lets up, that camera of his, gracelessly jerking us from one character to another or else abruptly coming to a halt in mid-movement as if no longer sure where it's supposed to be going. I can sympathise with Leconte's determination to avoid the academicism inherent in all filmic period pieces, but this loose, freewheeling style is as tricky to pull off as any other, and he hasn't mastered it yet, to put it mildly.

None of which would matter too much if he were possessed of a distinctively individual personality, if he were, in other words, an authentic auteur. But if you hold La Veuve de Saint-Pierre up to the light, you won't, I'm afraid, find any watermark.

Comments