The Widow of Saint-Pierre

Rob and I haven’t had time for movie watching lately, but he grabbed a couple of dvd’s from the book mobile on Wednesday after returning books. Normally book mobile duty is mine. I take Dee, return whatever, retrieve anything we’ve ordered via the county library’s online catalog and check out the dvd shelf for new or interesting offerings. I think the story has been told, by Rob on his blog or by me here, that he wasn’t allowed to go to the video store by himself anymore after returning one time with spectacularly poor choices. Well, The Widow of Saint-Pierre doesn’t quite merit such a prohibition, but it does beg the question of what was he thinking?

Based, supposedly, on the true tale which took place on the east coast islands new Newfoundland that are still a part of France today, it endeavors to tell the story of Madame La and her husband Jean. The year is 1849 and Jean is a captain of the French forces stationed on the island to keep the peace. A senseless murder of a local by two drunken fishermen has taken place and Jean is charged with warehousing them until a guiotine can be shipped to the island for the execution of the man who wielded the knife, Neel Auguste. His accomplice is killed by a mob as they are being transported to the army compound. The island people regard the remaining murderer as a barbarian for whom redemption is not possible.

It’s never made entirely clear why Jean is stationed at Saint-Pierre. He is clearly a cut and a half above his men and even the men who make up the local ruling class including the Governor and his councilmen. There are hints that his being there is a punishment and that perhaps it has something to do with his wife. Madame La is clearly ahead of her time. She believes that not only can Neel be rehabilitated but that the local population can be re-educated towards him and the idea of executions as a way to maintain law and order.

The movie begins at the end with Madame La in widow weeds, but it’s misleading because in that time the guillotine itself was also know as “the widow” and the island of Saint-Pierre is rife with widowed women due to the hazards the local occupation of fishing poses to the male population.

Madame La is drawn to Neel for reasons that don’t always seem altruistic but she and Jean are very much in love and quite lusty.

“Maybe this is porn,” Rob suggested as the film wore on.

“French period piece, sub-titled porn?” I asked.

I puzzled over it quite a bit the next day. I wasn’t sure what the message was supposed to be. Essentially in trying to save Neel, Madame La sacrifices both him and her husband without realizing until too late what she has done when it becomes clear that her husband has been shielding her from the displeasure of the Governor and his men who appeal to France to remove and court-martial Jean.

Jean loved his wife so much that he could not ask her to be anything other than who she was – even though her actions put them both in danger and cost him his life. Madame La, though she loves her husband, does not really take notice of the depth of Jean’s love for her nor does she return it in kind really. She takes Jean’s devotion and protection for granted.

I can’t say that I liked the film, but I didn’t dislike it. It gave me one of my new favorite lines however.

The rich and powerful of the town gather on Sundays for brunch and entertainment at the Governor’s home every Sunday. Jean and his wife do not regularly attend but on one occasion Madame La overhears the men in the smoking room discussing Neel and she enters to challenge them. Naturally she offends them and Jean comes to her rescue, verbally boxing one man and forcing him to admit he was wrong and apologize to Madame La for all those gathered – men, women and children – to hear. After Jean and his wife leave, the Governor’s wife remarks to the other women – loudly enough for the men to hear as well,

“Le Capitaine doesn’t even have to fuck us to make cuckolds of our husbands.”


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