Just in time for Timothy McVeigh's controversial exit from the stage, The Widow of Saint Pierre offers us a romanticized look at capital punishment back when nobody was opposed to it. Well, almost nobody. Chocolat's Juliette Binoche ' looking radiant, as usual ' plays the military captain's wife in this historical drama set on the rocky coast of an island off Newfoundland, circa 1850. And through some impenetrable combination of high principle and displaced lust, her Madame La takes on the cause of a man scheduled to be executed. Shades of Mrs. Soffel, except Madame La doesn't run off with the condemned man (Bosnian director Emir Kusturica in his first stab at acting), just has him sprung from his cell for some rehabilitative gardening and roof repair. Should the prisoner escape, however, Madame La's husband (Daniel Auteuil), with whom she enjoys a sexual relationship only the French can pull off with a straight face, will be executed in his place.
Hence, the "widow" of the title, which refers to Madame La, potentially, but was also slang for guillotine. Nothing concentrates the mind like a guillotine, Samuel Johnson more or less said, but it seems to have had the opposite effect on director Patrice Leconte, who allows the characters to keep their motivations to themselves. Still, this is the rare movie that seems to capture both the look and feel of the past ' a 19th-century novel sprung to life.