Few period films feel as contemporary as Patrice Leconte's latest offering. Because though the story takes place in 1850 on a remote French-owned island off the Canadian coast, the themes are universal and timeless. In its scenes of uninhibited love-making and its argument against capital punishment, La Veuve De Saint-Pierre exhibits a passion that blasts the dust from your typical costume drama's corsets.
Scruffy outsider Neel (Emir Kusturica, director of Underground, making his acting debut) has been convicted of murder and condemned to die. As he awaits the arrival of a guillotine from France, his good deeds and community service win over the villagers. The island's army captain and his wife (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, on screen for the first time together) are sure Neel can be rehabilitated, but their kindness only aggravates the authorities.
The title and Binoche's first appearance, dressed head to foot in black, hint at the tragedy to come ("veuve" translates as both "widow" and "guillotine"). But it is the tension between this fatalism and the characters' love of life that makes the film so affecting.