The Widow of St. Peter

The Widow of St. Peter is a French film directed by Patrice Leconte , released in 2000 .

The film is based on a true story of murder that took place in Saint Pierre and Miquelon in the xix th century. One of the main themes is the death penalty and rehabilitation. The refined decor, the snowy landscapes, the silences reinforce the dramatic effect. A chronological shift with the real story, places the scenes of the film 40 years before, while Napoleon III comes to power.

The film is filmed in Louisbourg and around Cape Breton .

The title plays on a pun on the widow – we see at the beginning of the film Juliette Binoche , Pauline , in black and a voice-over tells the story – and the slang term which refers to the guillotine .

The novel

A fight between sailors ends with a murder in Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in 1888. At the “end of the world”, there is a court but neither guillotine nor executioner to execute the sentence.

It’s the long winter, snow and ice seal the landscape. It takes months for the widow to come from Martinique. Meanwhile, the convict amends, saves a life, falls in love and even becomes a kind of popular hero . Can we, must we still slice his head?

Placed under the supervision of the captain of the island, taken in friendship by his wife, the couple becomes allies but the notables of the island do not accept this redemption.

Marine Saglio-Bramly’s novel (1999) is inspired by the true story of Joseph Néel.

The case Joseph Neel & Louis Ollivier: a murder in Ile-aux-Dogs

Emile Sasco (from the archives department and author of articles on local history) in 1938 gives the following account 1 . The trial of the case is conducted quickly, the criminal court meets in session on Tuesday, February 6, 1889. The proceedings last two days and the courtroom is full. Joseph Auguste Néel, born in Saint-Pierre, on May 29, 1860 and Louis Ollivier, born in Coatréven (Côtes-du-Nord) on October 31, 1863, are both fishermen.

Neel and Ollivier confirm their confessions made during the investigation. On Sunday, December 30, around 10 am, they plan supper at Coupard’s, angry to find the door of the barred drum, they demolish the pregnant, break the window of the cabin and, the boss of Ollivier who defends his home, knife by hand. The fight is between Coupard and his front. Neel exclaims “it is better to kill the devil than the devil kills you”, then to his comrade “hold on to the knife, tap your turn”, the latter pushes it into the belly of Coupard. Then they stomp on the corpse, mutilate it to see if Coupard was fat. After concealing the corpse, they hope to reach the English coast, but the east winds and the heavy seas prevent them. They are arrested on the morning of January st .

The two murderers plead drunkenness if not to excuse, at least to mitigate the atrocity of their crime. Ollivier, who played a rather passive role, says that Coupard had always been good for him. The witnesses of morality, almost all the inhabitants of the Isle-aux-Chiens, agree that Neel was between two wines as usual and that Ollivier appeared to be in his normal state. The public prosecutor demands the death penalty against Néel and does not oppose the mitigating circumstances in favor of Ollivier, who has an incomprehensible fascination. The lawyer tries to save his client from capital punishment, arguing the state of moral abjection in which he had fallen as a result of inveterate practices of alcoholism, deprived of free will. The Criminal Court considers that Néel acted with a precise and complete responsibility. The guilt of Ollivier is presented as doubtful for the murder, Coupard having ceased to live when he struck. Neel is sentenced to death and Ollivier to ten years of forced labor.

Public opinion, respecting the judgment of court, nevertheless thinks that there was disproportion between the two sentences. Brought back to the prison, Néel recovers his usual cynical gaiety: “I did well to eat my 2500 francs which came from my father”.

The synopsis

The scenario

In 1849, two sailors abandoned at sea by the owner of their boat were accidentally rescued by another boat and brought back to the archipelago of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon , off Newfoundland . During a drinking bout, they stab Old Coupard, the one who had abandoned them, to know “if he is fat or fat”. They are condemned but the laws of the Republic are difficult to implement far from the metropolis. The absence of a guillotine, a widow , at Saint-Pierre: it must be brought from France, from Martinique ? It will take time if only the mother country deigns to answer. The governor proposes to soften the sentence to avoid the worries of execution. The other notables are against. One of the convicts dies in a cart accident before being taken to prison, the other, sentenced to death, remains in the custody of the captain in charge of the military forces of the island of Saint-Pierre and awaits execution with humility and resignation. The wife of the captain, Madame “La” (for Madame La Capitaine), is interested in him.

Madame “La” sees in Joseph Néel goodness and simplicity and can not bring herself to accept that a man is definitely bad. With the help of his benefactress, against the opinion of the notables, the convict makes himself indispensable and popular. But the Marie-Galante is in sight, the guillotine, at the end of many uncertainties is brought to the ground. An executioner finally found, justice must be done. Madame “La” will do the impossible to prevent Néel from being executed. And it is out of love for his wife that the Captain, whose reputation is marginal, opposes the established order, it is for this love that leads him to the end of his destiny.

The characters

  • The captain is an officer, marginal: he dares to express his disagreement. He never wears kepi, rarely shaves, does not wear warm clothes despite the very negative temperatures. Some allusions say that his mutation is probably due to some differences. This island at the end of the world is certainly not a promotion. In love with his wife, despite his rank and the conventions of the time, he does not hide his passion. The couple is very united, accomplice, against everything and against all. The captain can confront the Governor and his men to defend Pauline’s opinions.

Nature lover, loving freedom, he gallops with his horse, baptized unconventionally, salt cod. Despite his marginality, he seems to be aware from the beginning of a probable fatal outcome to this story. His looks tell his lucidity but he does not intervene, respecting the choices of his wife. The character is fatalistic, romantic and worthy, it never shrinks even if it cost him his career or life 2 .

  • Madam Captain
  • Neel, the condemned
  • The horse: salt cod


  • The death penalty
  • Rehabilitation
  • Free will
  • Love, passion

The technical sheet

  • Director: Patrice Leconte
  • Scenario: Claude Faraldo
  • Adaptation: Patrice Leconte
  • Director of Photography: Eduardo Serra
  • Camera operator: Patrice Leconte
  • Composer: Pascal Estève
  • Editor: Joëlle Hache
  • Production Designer: Ivan Maussion
  • Costume Designer: Christian Gasc
  • Distribution: Pathé Distribution , France
  • Producers: Frédéric Brillion and Gilles Legrand
  • Co-producers: Daniel Louis and Denise Robert
  • Production: Epithet Films , France; France 2 Cinema , France and France 3 Cinema , France
  • Release date: April 19, 2000
  • Production year: 1999
  • French movie
  • Genre: Drama
  • Duration: 1h52


  • Juliette Binoche : Madame La, Pauline, the captain’s wife
  • Daniel Auteuil : Jean, the captain
  • Emir Kusturica : Joseph Auguste Néel
  • Michel Duchaussoy : the governor
  • Philippe Magnan : President Venot
  • Christian Charmetant : the Commissioner of the Navy
  • Philippe Du Janerand : the customs chief
  • Reynald Bouchard : Louis Ollivier
  • Ghyslain Tremblay : Mr. Chevassus, the executioner
  • Marc Béland : the soldier Loïc
  • Yves Jacques : the rear admiral
  • Maurice Chevit : the father of the governor
  • Catherine Lascault : The Malvilain
  • Dominique Quesnel : the madam
  • Anne-Marie Philipe : the wife of the governor
  • Sylvie Moreau : Adrienne

Around the film

At the Feux croisés festival, which is dedicated to him in 2015, Patrice Leconte indicates that Alain Corneau was initially to produce the film. The latter never told him the reasons for his withdrawal from the project. Leconte adds that he almost accepted the realization without reading the script, just the idea of shooting with Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil. For logistical reasons that were too problematic, the film was not shot on the scene of history, in Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon .

Notes and references

  1. ↑ Account of the case of Joseph and Louis Neel E. Ollivier Sasco (1938)]: business-neel / 1938-a-murder-at-the-dogs-island-3 /  [ archive ]
  2. ↑ Lacoste H. (French Institute in Bremen) – The Widow of Saint-Pierre by Patrice Leconte. Educational file, Cinéfête 7, 17 p.

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