Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week: As a new Juliette Binoche movie, Let The Sunshine In, begins its theatrical run in the States, we remember other highlights from the career of this world-class actor.
It’s one of those cruel Oscar ironies that Juliette Binoche’s sole nomination for Best Actress—she’d won Best Supporting Actress four years earlier, as nurse Hana in The English Patient—celebrates perhaps the least interesting performance of her entire lengthy career. In fact, anyone not well steeped in Oscar trivia will probably be hard-pressed even to remember the film in question, as Chocolat is a wan period romance (also starring Johnny Depp) that Harvey Weinstein, at the height of his grotesque kingpin era, more or less strong-armed through the 2000–2001 awards season. And there’s more irony still: During the ceremony, as Binoche applauded for winner Julia Roberts, audiences in at least a few U.S. cities were happily watching her do far superior work in a much better movie, which the Academy later politely ignored.
You’d think Binoche must play the title role in The Widow Of Saint-Pierre, but there actually is no title role—or, rather, it’s occupied by an inanimate object. The French word veuve, meaning “widow,” is also slang for the guillotine, and Patrice Leconte’s deeply moving drama, set on an island off the coast of Newfoundland in 1849, tells the story of a sailor named Néel (played by renowned Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica) whose execution has been delayed until one can arrive. Néel’s crime was murder, but he committed it in a drunken rage, when he wasn’t himself, and has since become one of the island’s most beloved citizens. Nobody wants to see him die—least of all the military captain (Daniel Auteuil) in charge of the case, and the captain’s wife, known as Madame La (Binoche), who’s turned Néel’s rehabilitation into her personal project. She teaches him to read, secures him work as a handyman, gives him reasons to go on living. The French government, however, is less than thrilled about the optics of executing a local hero, and chooses to solve the problem not by pardoning the condemned man, but by condemning the captain.
Directed by Patrice Leconte at the tail end of his hot streak (which included such arthouse favorites as Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser’s Husband, and Ridicule), The Widow Of Saint-Pierre deftly balances idealism and cynicism, insisting on the value of kindness and generosity while acknowledging that they sometimes lead to ruin. All three of the lead actors do excellent work, but Binoche quietly becomes the movie’s emotional fulcrum, conveying without words that Madame La, who has no children, has channeled her maternal instincts into protecting this hapless prisoner (played by Kusturica with childlike guilelessness). Making uncomplicated goodness compelling to watch is no easy task, and here—unlike in The English Patient—there’s no swooning romanticism to offset the nurturing. Binoche leans into the difficulty, radiating so much purity of heart that it’s genuinely painful when salacious rumors about Néel and Madame La start flying. “Anyone who insults her must kill me to save his life,” the captain gravely warns. With Binoche in the role, no viewer could feel any differently.
Availability: The Widow Of Saint-Pierre is available to stream on Amazon (free for Prime members) and Epix. It can also be rented or purchased via Google, and Netflix offers it on DVD.