Set in 1850 on the isolated French island of Saint-Pierre off the coast of Canada, the story centres on Madame La (Binoche), wife of the local captain (Auteuil) who's charged with looking after condemned murderer Neel (Yugoslavian director Kusturica), who can't be executed because the island has no guillotine and no executioner. So while they wait, the captain and his wife treat Neel with respect and kindness, and soon his goodness and heroism is noticed by all the residents. So when the ship finally arrives with a guillotine, no one wants him dead. But if Neel goes free, the captain will have to be executed in his place. And the authorities both in Paris and on Saint-Pierre want at least one head to roll.
It may seem like the title gives away the ending, but it's a bit more complex than that. And there's a real sense of tension as the plot's resolution approaches--how will anyone get out of this? Binoche and Auteuil give their usual top-notch performances, making their characters both enigmatic and deeply visceral, bringing out layers of meaning without ever chewing up the scenery. Meanwhile, Kusturica wins us over with his sheer physical presence--a gentle giant resigned to his fate but never giving up on life. And as usual Leconte gives the film a terrific visual feel, letting us experience the extreme weather, the remoteness, the small-town camaraderie and suspicion. And as its characters square off in a battle between the letter and the spirit of the law, the film sucks us in entirely. Wonderful stuff.
[15--adult themes and situations, some violence] 20.Jul.00
UK release 4.Aug.00; US release 23.Feb.01
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