The Widow of Saint-Pierre, 2000. Juliette Binoche stars in this drama from 1850 French Canada--in a barren landscape populated by fishermen and their wives and widows. After a night of drinking, two fishermen (who had almost been lost at sea in a fog bank-but were luckily picked up by another boat) row out to an island to confront their captain. After taunting the man and drawing him out of his house, one of the two men, August (played by Emir Kusturica), stabs the captain and later is picked up with his accomplice. A brief court scene shows the men found guilty and admitting that they killed the man for no good reason. Now August is supposed to be executed for the crime. But there is no guillotine on the island, and the townspeople come to believe that he should not be executed. And no one wants to be the man's executioner. The political pressure mounts on the Captain (Daniel Auteuil). What will he do? If the prisoner is not executed, then the Captain is liable and will have to be put to death himself. The Captain (Daniel Auteuil-one of the great contemporary French actors) is a loner, someone who has been kicked downstairs to this God-forsaken post because of past indiscretions (as judged by empty-headed bureaucrats, of course). He thinks for himself and has a good idea of what is right and what is wrong. His wife (Juliette Binoche), absolutely loves her husband, just as he loves her. But the first time she sees the prisoner brought into the tiny prison yard (where she is trying to grow plants), something lights up in her eyes. In effect, she falls in love with this man, and then takes him on as her project in order to affirm his humanity and to establish a role for herself in this life. With this as context, what we have here is far more than the typical romantic love triangle we have been brought up on in American cinema. Instead, we have an exploration of what it means to love someone and to affirm-in that love-that the other person is a separate person, an individual, who has every right to pursue a meaningful path in his/her life.
Intimate Strangers. 2004. Leconte is curious about the ways in which characters are drawn to becoming their opposites. A woman enters what she thinks is a psychologist’s office. She does not appear to realize that he is actually an accountant. He does try to tell her the truth about his identity; but for a number of reasons she is unable to accept his version of reality. The young woman unburdens herself in the early meetings. She reveals the details of an unhappy marriage. The accountant discovers passion in this encounter; he falls in love with her. He even consults with the real psychologist down the hall, and that doctor warns him about the pitfalls of doctor/patient relationships. The basic structure of the film is parallel edited scenes of the characters coming together vs. scenes of the accountant alone or talking to other characters. The accountant has his problems of his own. His ex-wife, who still cares for him deeply, is a confidante. In fact, his ex-wife still mourns the loss of their relationship. What is the point of this film? Throughout the film our main character, the accountant, is mainly acted upon by other characters. He is a passive man. In other words, our accountant has allowed others to act upon him, but he never has committed himself to any passion. In this film two women are attracted to him and seem to compete for his attentions. Both women are inviting him to make a decision—to act. But he manages to do nothing for the longest time—until, of course, the well-orchestrated climactic scenes of the film.
My Best Friend. Dir. Patrice Leconte, 2006. This was a wonderful souflée of a film! It was light and it was sweet, and yet at the heart of the film there was an understanding of how men can come to be so alone in this world. One of the main characters is from the upper class, and one of the main characters is from the middle class—a taxi driver, who just happens to have spent his entire life devoted to information—facts, statistics, details, information, all of which is retained in his vast and well-practiced memory. In short, he is a perfect candidate for Jeopardy or for any other game show that requires memory of loads of information and facts—as in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Now the film must establish itself upon an incredible conceit: associates of the main character will make a bet with him that he actually has no best friend. But if he can produce a best friend in one week, then he will win the bet. Now that seems a simple prospect. Surely any higher class person can produce a best friend in one week! But in this case, the main character Francois (masterfully acted by Daniel Auteuil) has spent his life focused on objects of art. He runs an antique business 50/50 with a beautiful woman (not his lover). A divorced man, he does have a lover, but she is not his best friend, too. And that makes her a temporary person in his life. The film moves along beautifully because when the bet is on, poor Francois quickly discovers that none of the men on his list could possibly be his best friend—after all, most people relate to him on business terms, and that means the basis of the relationship is money—not friendship. Francois is a self-centered, vain, obnoxious fellow who thinks that money can buy everything—even friendship. Soon it is evident that the two men will find each other because both men have no friends. One is devoted to objects; one is devoted to information. “Teach me to sociable. I’ll pay you.” That’s the basis of their relationship at first; and yet eventually the teaching of the taxi driver Bruno morphs to shared experiences. The film is comic, and yet in this film the dark nights of the soul are valid and painful. When a character admits, “I have no friends,” that line is not meant for laughs. Just think of the possibilities when a call for information morphs into a real conversation between two human beings. What drama! The best moment for me was when we reach the climax, and just when all is at the highest level of energy and noise and celebration, we cut to the silence of a room with a high angle shot of the main character sitting alone. He turns off the TV and sits alone and sad in his luxury apartment. Now that’s cinema!
Also recommended: The Girl on the Bridge, 1999, again starring Daniel Auteuil.
Film resource written by Robert Yahnke
Copyright, Robert E. Yahnke, © 2009
Professor, Univ. of Minnesota
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