From the Chicago Reader (March 30, 2001). — J.R.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Written by Claude Faraldo
With Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Emir Kusturica, Philippe Magnan, and Michel Duchaussoy.
I find that some movies change more than others over repeated viewings, and after three screenings Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of Saint-Pierre slid all the way from near masterpiece to effective piece of distraction. I saw it three times only out of professional duty — after seeing it at a press screening several weeks ago, I led two discussions about it for the “Talk Cinema” film series. I would have been happier seeing it only once, and if you don’t intend to spend a lot of time reflecting on it afterward, The Widow of Saint-Pierre could add up to one good evening.
That may sound condescending, but some moviegoers — including, on occasion, myself — have the attitude that “I don’t like to think when I go to movies; I want to have fun.” It’s depressing that there are people who are willing to say they can’t have fun while they’re thinking — that is, if they’re telling the truth, since I suspect some of them are fibbing, even if they don’t know it. This attitude is curiously prevalent in this country, and I wonder if it’s partly because we have so many lousy teachers in our educational system that they give us a perverse impression of what it means to be intellectual.
In any case, no one ought to assume that the only nonintellectual movies out there are the ones without subtitles. The recent smash success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might open the door to some of the better entertainments from around the world, which deserve to be shown at the mall alongside Someone Like You. The Widow of Saint-Pierre, which opens this weekend at the Music Box, will probably be associated more with art or culture than with entertainment, chiefly because it’s in French with subtitles and it takes place during the mid-19th century. Yet its intellectual content isn’t any higher than that of Erin Brockovich or Traffic. Like those films, it’s stunted by the star system it’s built around. Here Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil — like Julia Roberts, Michael Douglas, and Ashley Judd — are used to distract us from whatever anomalies, contradictions, and inconsistencies the movie decides to sling at us.
The story, which is partially based on court records, is set during the French Second Republic on Saint Pierre, a French island off the coast of Newfoundland. Two drunken fishermen argue endlessly about whether their former captain is gras (fat) or gros (big), go to his cabin for fun and games, and wind up knifing him to death. The man who wielded the knife, Neel Auguste (played by the great Sarajevan film director Emir Kusturica, coaxed into acting by Leconte), is sentenced to be guillotined; his friend gets off with hard labor but is killed in an accident en route to the prison.
It turns out that the island has neither a guillotine nor an executioner, and the governor (Michel Duchaussoy) insists on ordering a guillotine from overseas, hoping to find an executioner in the interim. Meanwhile he places Auguste in the custody of a military captain (Daniel Auteuil) who has only recently arrived on the island. The captain’s humanitarian wife (Juliette Binoche) proposes that Auguste be let out of his cell to help her build a greenhouse, and her devoted and supportive husband immediately agrees, though this predictably winds up scandalizing the governor and the judge. Over the next several months, Auguste becomes a valued member of the local community; he even winds up with a wife and child. But the governor, still awaiting the arrival of the guillotine, has no intention of commuting his death sentence. (Incidentally, the French word for “widow” is slang for “guillotine,” so the title works more than one way.)
These are the bare bones of the film’s narrative setup, which becomes a potent and persuasive plea against capital punishment. But they give little sense of the physical passion between the captain and his wife (neither of whom is ever identified by name, though the wife is referred to as “Madame La”), their total dedication to each other, or their isolation from the surrounding community — which are every bit as important to the film, perhaps even more important insofar as Auteuil and Binoche are the stars (Binoche is a good deal more vibrant here than she is in the self-congratulatory nonsense of Chocolat). Vague hints are dropped that their characters left France under some sort of shadow, and a lot of attention is given to the captain’s horse, which arrives on a ship around the same time as the murder trial and seems to symbolize freedom to him. But nothing solid comes of either plot strand, just as nothing comes of the suggestion that Madame La’s passion for social justice may spice up her marriage in some fashion.
On his TV show with Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper objected to the film’s stand against capital punishment, complaining that we get no sense of what repercussions the murder has in the community. I’m not sure how he failed to notice the angry crowd who precipitate the accident that kills the second fisherman as he’s being taken to prison, but it is true that the movie stacks the deck in Auguste’s favor and displays no curiosity about the murder victim — a form of indirect dramatic expediency that’s also evident in the way the film shows us the murder only as a flashback during Auguste’s trial and reveals the verdict only when a boy delivers the news to the local tavern. Yet if one believes, as I do, that capital punishment is both barbaric and ineffectual as a deterrent against crime, then the deck stacking is no more objectionable than the casting of big stars to play the sexy leads. In fact, it’s a strategy that evokes Steven Spielberg at his canniest, as it hones in on a story and an emotional tone without the distraction of thought.
From time to time, The Widow of Saint-Pierre, like Spielberg’s movies, creates the illusion that it’s fostering consideration of an important issue. But Leconte — working as his own cameraman, as he customarily does, and favoring flurries of movement shot with a handheld camera to indicate his own feelings — sometimes prefers to muddle whatever issues Claude Faraldo’s screenplay raises. He opts for pure emotive responses, while offering attractive visuals — the lighting of interiors throughout is exquisite — to distract us from asking too many questions about the characters. Less forgivably, he allows Auguste to remain a cipher, thereby undercutting any nuanced reflection on his situation; perhaps this is a consequence of the overarching class bias of the film as it focuses on the two leads and their bourgeois comforts, virtually guaranteeing that we identify almost exclusively with them and distancing us from Auguste — and everyone else. Leconte certainly has the skill to hold us, but only if we refuse to think too much.
Much too talky. But some of the talk is by John Le Carre, who adapted his own novel with Andrew Davis and director John Boorman. And Pierce Brosnan, who plays a British spy, puts an arch spin on his James Bond credentials. They help this semicomedy claim the oxymoronic status of being an Austin Powers movie for grown-ups. Brosnan’s spy enlists a cockney ex-con (Geoffrey Rush) who’s working as a tailor for the rich and famous to be his main contact; other significant characters include the tailor’s wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and business partner (Leonor Varela) and a British diplomat (Catherine McCormack) the spy is pursuing. If you don’t find the cynicism of this mordant look at corruption too distastefuland ideologically speaking, it’s certainly an improvement over Boorman’s Beyond Rangoonyou’re likely to have a fair amount of fun. 109 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (March 23, 2001). — J.R.
15 Minutes ***
Directed and written by John Herzfeld
With Robert De Niro, Edward Burns, Kelsey Grammer, Avery Brooks, Melina Kanakaredes, Karel Roden, and Oleg Taktarov.
A first-rate Hollywood entertainment, 15 Minutes is more than a little schizophrenic, a shotgun wedding between two seemingly irreconcilable genres — the buddy/cop action thriller and the angry social satire. It can’t even be unambiguous about the reason for its title. Presumably to placate the action-thriller buffs — some of whom are bound to be pissed off because satire is what closes in New Haven — there’s a throwaway line toward the end of the movie in which a vengeful cop is told he’ll have custody of the killer of his slain colleague for 15 minutes. Far more important is the satirical reference the movie bothers to cite only in the press notes: Andy Warhol’s 1968 assertion that “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
I’m a satire buff, but I have to confess that I do like at least a couple of the straight-ahead and relatively mindless action sequences: several cops chasing a Czech killer through busy midtown Manhattan traffic, while the killer, Emil, and his simpleminded Russian sidekick, Oleg (who videotapes everything and whose hero is Frank Capra), flee toward Central Park; and a fire marshal and a murder witness trying to escape from her apartment after it explodes in flames. Still, if it weren’t for the satire, I doubt that I would have been interested in seeing this picture again.
For the record, I enjoyed it just as much the second time, though it held up better as entertainment than as satire. Part of the reason may be that satire, even more than action, demands clarity and purity of purpose. By the time this movie gets to the homestretch, its attempt to combine a vitriolic anger at the media and the rabble-rousing, vigilantelike efforts of the fire marshal to defeat the villain is more than schizophrenic; by this point, the left hand barely seems to know what the right hand is doing.
Two movie satires that didn’t close in New Haven are Network (1976) and Forrest Gump (1994), neither of which attempted to double as a crime thriller. I suspect that one major reason they didn’t flop is that the targets in both movies — pushy feminists and cynical TV executives, ranting, hypocritical Black Panthers and fake hippie pacifists — are goonish, neocon cartoons, broader than barn doors and hence unthreatening to many in the audience. These movies were probably irritating only to grumpy liberals like myself who refused to accept that these strident parodies were accurate or ideologically neutral. Especially egregious were the supposedly sympathetic figures who reflected how the screenwriters (and presumably spectators) saw themselves: William Holden in Network is a “principled” middle-aged philanderer who can see through all the lies of the lefties while possessing nothing less than the Truth himself (a transparent and somewhat comical stand-in for Paddy Chayefsky in his 50s), and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump is a saintlike, sweet-tempered, salt-of-the-earth moron who comically epitomizes the innate goodness of innocents everywhere (presumably an idealized version of screenwriter Eric Roth, novelist Winston Groom, or director Robert Zemeckis, each hankering after his lost childhood).
One could argue that the simplifications in 15 Minutes about ruthless TV producers and unethical lawyers aren’t much different, but you don’t have to be a liberal to find these caricatures fairly believable or their real-life counterparts fairly sickening. And even though the Russian videographer might be viewed as a Gump with a foreign accent, he and the even creepier Czech killer, both recent immigrants, are embodiments of our own worst impulses and tendencies, monsters whose excesses stem directly from their observations of us. Theoretically we couldn’t laugh at Gump without recognizing something of him in ourselves, and we’d be inclined to be affectionately indulgent about his foibles. Any laughter provoked by the Russian stooge is bound to be more troubled, because Oleg is clearly a kind of Frankenstein monster our culture has created and his innocence is far more dangerous.
Roseanne Barr is one of the people thanked in this movie’s closing acknowledgments. It isn’t clear whether the segment of her touchy-feely daytime talk show — about a man who confesses to sleeping with his daughter-in-law, then, after she offers her own tearful confession, kneels on the floor and remorsefully hugs his son — is an actual clip or a simulation, though I don’t suppose it matters. More significant is that shots of Emil and Oleg watching this segment (which ends with a freeze frame and the title “Next up: forgiveness”) alternate with the footage Oleg has just taken with a stolen video camera of Emil stabbing to death his former partner and the partner’s wife.
Writer-director John Herzfeld implicitly treats these two segments as practically interchangeable bits of shameless, pornographic spectacle. The Roseanne segment is already commodified; the snuff video hasn’t yet been, but as a subsequent development in the plot implies — a bit hysterically and implausibly, unless one allows Herzfeld some satiric leeway — this is only accidental. The media are equally willing to put either spectacle on display, complete with hypocritical justifications, to boost ratings. From this standpoint, the stupidity of a Russian Gump, the venality of a sensationalist TV newscaster and of a lawyer who’s ready to defend anybody, and the connivance of a killer trying to get off on an insanity plea and then make another kind of killing by selling the movie rights, are all morally equivalent — it’s no wonder that all four scummy characters wind up striking various deals. Herzfeld underscores his point by having the media happily allow a mugger with a knife in Central Park to portray himself as a hapless victim speaking earnestly about kids’ need for role models.
This sort of misanthropy may not add up to a complex analysis, but it makes for a much more satisfying notion of villainy than we usually get in cop thrillers. It also suggests that two sets of genre cliches can be a lot better than one, especially if alternating between them throws the viewer off balance by objectifying aspects of the suspense with the satire and undercutting aspects of the satire with the suspense. (Herzfeld’s previous feature, the 1996 2 Days in the Valley, negotiated its own numerous miniplots with somewhat less irony, apart from a penchant for including dog reaction shots — a veiled comment about the good-natured slavishness of his audience?)
For all the confusing signals it generates, Herzfeld’s contradictory approach encourages thought and reflection — something few cop thrillers do. The dialectic between the genres parallels the contrast between the lead buddies — a media-friendly, middle-aged gumshoe (Robert De Niro) and a younger fire marshal who shuns the media (Edward Burns), slightly tetchy rivals who find themselves paired in the investigation of Emil’s murders. Which one is the hero? First you think it’s the cop — not only because it’s De Niro, but also because he practices proposing to his girlfriend in front of a mirror, a hokey bit of business clearly intended to remind us of Taxi Driver. But the real hero turns out to be the fireman, who gradually becomes so pissed off by the media that he becomes another potential psycho/avenging angel like De Niro’s heroically demented vet — a nutcase we’re meant to cheer for. Whoever the hero is, he’s not what you might call consistently heroic, but we’re still supposed to be on his side whenever he’s ready to commit murder.
Herzfeld winds up getting his own hands just as dirty as those of his four villains — and he dirties us in the process, though he doesn’t make it easy for us to overlook his or our duplicity. That’s what I like about 15 Minutes. It expands Warhol’s witticism to say, more or less, “In the future, everyone will be a world-famous psycho killer for 15 minutes, and everyone will also be a world-famous psycho killer’s victim for roughly the same amount of time. In this future democracy of fame and attention, where equal employment opportunities rule, trying to distinguish between stars and fans, cynical media perpetrators and gullible spectators, predators and victims, will be pointless.” Which is precisely my idea of satire.
A so-so romantic comedy about people working on a TV talk show in Manhattan, simultaneously enlivened and made hard to take by the cast. The problem, at least for me, is that the leads (Ashley Judd, Hugh Jackman, and Greg Kinnear) are so busy being cute that sometimes they forget to act like human beings, while the secondary female cast is treated rather cruelly, presumably for not being as cute as the leads. These are common (albeit creepy) limitations of silly Hollywood comedies of this kind, and if you haven’t minded them elsewhere you probably won’t object to them here. Adapted by Elizabeth Chandler from Laura Zigman’s novel Animal Husbandry and directed by Tony Goldwyn (A Walk on the Moon); with Marisa Tomei and Ellen Barkin. 97 min. (JR)