La Veuve de Saint-Pierre

France/Canada 2000

Reviewed by Michael Witt


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The island of Saint-Pierre, a small French settlement off the Canadian coast, 1849. After a night of heavy drinking, fisherman Neel murders the elderly Coupard. The island authorities sentence Neel to death and request the loan of a guillotine from another French colony. While waiting for the guillotine, the authorities appoint Jean, captain of the troops in Saint-Pierre, as Neel's custodian. The captain's wife, Madame La, teaches Neel to read and lets him perform odd jobs around the island, much to the disapproval of the governing élite.

As Neel becomes integrated into the community, the residents grow reluctant to assist in his execution. Initially, the local men refuse to tow the ship carrying the guillotine into the harbour, and do so only when Neel himself volunteers to help. The island's governor successfully pressurises an aspiring immigrant to take on the job of executioner; when questioned by the governor, the captain refuses to shoot on the crowds in the event of a riot over Neel's execution. Madame La encourages Neel to flee to Newfoundland, but he voluntarily returns to his cell. Having married a local woman who bore him a baby, Neel is executed. The captain is deported to France and shot by firing squad.


Director Patrice Leconte has always delighted in gliding unpredictably between genres. In addition to his work in advertising, he has continued to turn out on average a new feature each year in a variety of registers. As if to confound expectations, his new film La Veuve de Saint-Pierre bears little resemblance to his earlier foray into the costume drama genre, Ridicule. Where Ridicule playfully combined period comedy and political satire, the politics of La Veuve de Saint-Pierre - in which the murderer Neel becomes a reformed man thanks to the attentions of the kindly Madame La - can be reduced to bland slogans along the lines of 'Abolish capital punishment' and 'Beware the wrath of petit-bourgeois functionaries scorned'.

More interestingly La Veuve de Saint-Pierre is about surfaces, with the characters' attention to dress codes and behavioural rule books echoed in the film's sumptuous visuals. Working with a comparatively large budget, Leconte goes to great length to evoke the glacial blue-greys and rough textures (slate, granite, ice) of the island of Saint-Pierre on which it's set. The theme of incarceration (Neel is imprisoned for murder, French nationals are isolated on an island thousands of miles away from their native land, Saint-Pierre's governing élite's behaviour is tightly restrained by social mores) is visually reinforced by the combination of the widescreen format and tight close-ups which results in a pervasive sense of suffocation. Even in the occasional panoramic views across the frozen landscape, the enduring impression is of the crushing weight of the sky. When the arrival of spring is suggested by sudden flashes of green, the film seems to take a deep breath.

As is often observed in relation to his previous work, Leconte's five-year apprenticeship as a comic-strip artist seems to have influenced the film's crisp editing style and often refreshingly insolent mise en scène. But on this occasion the film's strident imagery ends up swamping emotional nuance. Rather than carrying a humorous or dynamic charge, forthright insertions such as the cutaways to the ship carrying the guillotine charging through the ocean come across as clumsy distractions from the fragility of the relationships at the film's heart. Similarly, the injection of gratuitous bursts of melodrama through expertly executed set pieces (the pelting of the prisoners' cart with rocks, for instance) disrupt the film's wider mood.

Leconte has claimed that it was the quality of Claude Faraldo's script and the chance to work with Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil that convinced him to step into Alain Corneau's shoes (Corneau, the director of Tous les matins du monde, walked away from the project four months before shooting was due to start). But it's possible he also perceived here the opportunity for a further variation on the fine portraits of sexual desire which feature in his earlier Monsieur Hire, Le Mari de la coiffeuse and Le Parfum d'Yvonne. The principal focus of this sombre and self-consciously lyrical film is on the three-way relationship between Neel, his captor, the captain, and the captain's wife, Madame La. (The "veuve" of the title means widow, appropriately enough since La's concern for Neel ultimately leads to her husband's execution, but it's also the nickname for the guillotine). Above all, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre is constructed around three fantastic faces: Auteuil brings subtlety and intense energy to his role as the captain, Binoche embodies the statuesque La with cool precision and Emir Kusturica appears wholly at ease inside the wild but gentle Neel.

But it is in their interrelation that the film fails to convince: while the narrative ricochets suggestively from one lingering close-up to the next, it seldom delivers on the promise of emotional depth. Despite its aspiration to represent something of the transcendental power of love, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre ultimately fails to convey a genuine sense of emotional intensity or fragility.


Patrice Leconte
Frédéric Brillion
Gilles Legrand
Claude Faraldo
Patrice Leconte
Director of Photography
Eduardo Serra
Joëlle Hache
Art Director
Ivan Maussion
Pascale Estève
©Epithète Films/France 3 Cinéma/France 2 Cinéma/Cinémaginaire Inc./Production Veuve Saint-Pierre Inc.
Production Companies
Gilles Legrand & Frédéric Brillion present an Epithète Films/ Cinémaginaire/France 3 Cinéma/France 2 Cinéma co-production
With the participation of Universal Pictures (France)/Centre National de la Cinématographie/ Canal+/Téléfilm Canada/ SODEC/Québec Crédit d'impôt cinéma et télévision
With the collaboration of Radio Canada
With the participation of Gras Savoye
Denise Robert
Daniel Louis
Fortress of Louisbourg
Anne O'Neill
Production Managers
Frédéric Blum
Nicole Hilaréguy
Emmanuel Legrand
Unit Production Managers
Rémi Bergman
Pierre Allard
Assistant Directors
Grégoire Barachin
Anne Alloucherie
Anne Gilles
Simon Edouard Pilon
Jacques Pasquier
Angus Maclean
Olivier Chouinard
Script Supervisor
Marie Leconte
Jacques Dublin
2nd Unit Cameraman
Kevin Jewison
Special Visual Effects
Special Effects
Mario Dumont
Pierre Turmeau
Benoït Talenton
Louis Pedneault
Pierre Côté
Lorne Dosogne
Francis Marleau
Christian Gasc
Thi-Loan Nguyen
Joël Lavau
Kathryn Casault
Key Hairstylists
Isabelle Luzet
Michel Demonteix
Réjean Forget
Marie-France Cardinal
Titles/Special Optical Effects
Special Optical Effects
Frédéric Papon
Daniel Pereira de Abreu
Music performed by
Orchestre Philharmonique d'Ile-de-Franc
Eric Voegelin
1st Violin:
Frédéric Moreau
Frédéric Robin
Alexandre Soumagne
Frédéric Guerouet
Jean-Paul Batailley
Hautbois/Cor Anglais:
Daniel Py
Gilberto Pereyra
Bernard Wystraete
Music Recordist/Mixer
Didier Lizé
Music Consultant
Edouard Dubois
Direct Sound
Paul Lainé
Claude Hazanavicius
Dominique Hennequin
Sound Editor
Jean Goudier
Dialogue Editor
Fanchon Brule
Sound Effects
Pascal Chauvin
Pascal Dedeye
Sound Effects Recordist
Gilles Missir
ADR Recordist
Jean-Louis Lebras
Michel Filippi
Jean-Philippe Angelini
Katrina Heaulme
Equestrian Advisers
Mario Luraschi
Pete White
Pascal Madura
Stunt Arranger
Antonio Vidosa
Christophe Maratier
Juliette Binoche
Pauline, 'Madame La'
Daniel Auteuil
Jean, the captain
Emir Kusturica
Ariel Neel Auguste
Michel Duchaussoy
the governor
Philippe Magnan
President Venot
Christian Charmetant
supply and secretariat officer
Philippe Du Janerand
customs officer
Reynald Bouchard
Louis Ollivier
Ghyslain Tremblay
M. Chevassus
Marc Béland
soldier Loic
Yves Jacques
the rear-admiral
Maurice Chevit
the governor's father
Catherine Lascault
La Malvilain
Dominique Quesnel
the proprietor
Anne-Marie Philipe
the governor's wife
Isabelle Spade
President Venot's wife
Arianne Mallet
Julian Gutierrez
the governor's children
Sylvie Moreau
Geneviève Cocke
Manon Gauthier
washhouse women
Marianne C. Miron
Mme Chevassus
Jean-Paul Rouvray
the priest
Michel Daigle
Father Coupard
Luc Guerin
Captain Dumontier
Niel Kroetsch
captain of the Marie Galante
Sylvain Eluau
Captain Goelette
Raymond Cloutier
the adjutant
Patrick Steltzer
the brigadier
Patrick Caux
young soldier
Bernard Tanguay
the orderly
Serge Christiaenssens
Martin Larocque
town crier
Boris Napes
Yvon Roy
Luc Proulx
café customer
Kendall Negro
the child
Stéfan Perrault
Sarah McKenna
Film Four Distributors
10,102 feet
112 minutes 15 seconds
Dolby Digital/DTS
In Colour
2.35:1 [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011