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At the Movies

Looks back: Films examine honor, restraint and memory


The Widow of St. Pierre is a high-minded French throwback to the best old-time historical melodramas. Director Patrice Laconte’s new movie is built around a star (Juliette Binoche), takes place in 1849 on the French-governed island of St. Pierre (not far from Canada’s Atlantic coast), and is stirringly acted by its three principals: Madame La (Binoche); her husband, the Captain (Daniel Auteuil); and Neel Auguste, a fisherman (Emil Kusturica, the Yugoslav film director, making his acting debut). Something serious is at stake: Will the death sentence be carried out on Neel for his drunken participation in a senseless murder?

The “widow” of the title is a slang word for the guillotine, which France’s Second Republic has decreed must be used in the execution of condemned criminals. The isolated island of St. Pierre does not have such an instrument, but its small-minded governor and hair-splitting judge feel the law must be obeyed, and apply to Paris to have one sent as soon as possible.

Neel is led in shackles to a cell in the Captain’s garrison, triggering a powerful sense of sympathy in the aristocratic Madame La. Although the Captain vows he will carry out whatever orders he receives regarding his prisoner, he sees no need to impose harsh treatment. He even allows his wife to make Neel a kind of protégé. He helps her create a garden and accompanies her to Dog Island, where she brings charity to poor widows and children.

Leconte frames some striking shots of Madame La and Neel walking by the sea and dragging a sled across the snow. Though Madame La’s feelings for Neel suggest something more than pity, no indiscretion takes place. Tongues start wagging on St. Pierre, but the movie underlines the passionate nature of the relationship between the Captain and his wife. When there is a hint of levity directed at Madame La by the island’s small-minded rulers, one glance from the Captain squelches the affront to his honor.

If Binoche shows a far greater range as Madame La than in the popular but syrupy “Chocolat,” Auteuil is even more impressive as the epitome of military honor. Deeply in love with his wife, he is ready to run any risk in support of her independent convictions.

Meanwhile Neel has won over the poor inhabitants of the island by heroically braking a runaway wagon, repairing a widow’s roof and showing himself a model prisoner. When the news comes that a guillotine has been dispatched from Martinique, the populace is indignant. A public uprising erupts when Neel’s execution appears imminent; only the Captain’s sense of command manages to calm the enraged islanders.

The climax is stirring, with significant variations from the usual Hollywood formula. “The Widow of St. Pierre” is traditional moviemaking at its best, overwhelming us with images of the high-minded nobility of its three main characters.

By contrast, In the Mood for Love is less interested in narrative than in carefully framed shots of its two main characters passing each other on the stairs or staring wistfully from a distance. Taiwanese director Wong Kar-wei gets a maximum emotional charge out of the minimal story of a Hong Kong couple, secretary Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and journalist Chow Mowan (Tony Leung), who live in adjoining apartments in 1962 and gradually discover that their spouses are having an affair. Wong heightens the situation by never showing us Li’s husband or Chow’s wife directly: We see a back and a hairdo and hear a line of banal dialogue, but there is always some obstruction making a full view of them impossible. The pace is deliberately slow; in their early encounters, Li and Chow merely acknowledge each other politely.

The songs of Nat King Cole provide an appropriate background for the movie, which is about deep longing, elegance and restraint. “Let’s not be like them,” Li tells her new friend. Wong Kar-Wei simply sets his camera where it can observe from behind as the young woman walks gracefully downstairs, or points it at a street corner for brief moments when the couple are together outside. The director wants to seduce us as we observe Li wearing one beautiful silk dress after another; he then humorously deflates the effect by having the proprietor of the apartment house comment, “She’s certainly all decked out just to go buy some noodles.”

Trained by today’s films, contemporary audiences are initially apt to be impatient for Li and Chow to go to bed together, but by situating his story in the Hong Kong of the ’60s, the director emphasizes the taboo nature of adultery.

Neither Li nor Chow can stop reassessing the meaning of the situation that has brought them together. In several moving scenes, they imagine the meeting of their spouses, invent their first declarations of love and even play out the sequence in which Li asks her husband to admit that he has a mistress.

Wong is not preaching or trying to prove anything. He is merely reflecting on cinema as the art of repetition in the service of a better understanding of oneself and others. In this beautiful film he penetrates the complex veil of an impossible love.

Christopher Nolan’s Memento at first seems an even greater departure from conventional moviemaking, but by the end we may be asking if it’s any more than an ingenious trick. Based on a short story by the director’s brother Jonathan, it’s a film noir in which time runs backward. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) wakes up in a strange bed beside a complete stranger. He is looking to avenge the rape and death of his wife but has no short-term memory due to a blow on his head. Since he realizes that he doesn’t remember things, he is constantly taking Polaroid pictures of people he’s with and having “facts” tattooed all over his body.

Some people will take “Memento” as a metaphysical puzzle: How can we know anything? It’s the kind of movie that tempts one to say, “You’ve got to see it a second time,” but the truth is I wouldn’t be able to follow it even then.

Pearce is good in his confusion, laced with overconfidence and occasional lightheartedness. Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a dead man in the opening scene, is frightening in the way he keeps turning up, brimming with good humor. Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), a bartender who asks Leonard to help her, shows the most tolerance for his confusion. Mixed into the backward flow of Leonard’s story is another, a case he investigated as an insurance company investigator, presented in black and white, about a man with a similar memory problem.

Nolan keeps “Memento” going with the pace of a good thriller, and there are some legitimate laughs that grow out of Leonard’s confusion. But it was hard to care that much about any of the characters or what the answers to the movie’s questions really were. By the time I got home I had completely forgotten all about it, which may mean someone should make a film about my memory.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001