By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated March 02, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

A bleak island off the Canadian coast encompasses the world in the grave, impassioned miniature epic The Widow of Saint-Pierre. The people of this tiny French outpost live by rules and manners in the mid-19th century; then those rules are challenged by a jailer (Daniel Auteuil), the wife he loves (Juliette Binoche), and a murderer (Bosnian director Emir Kusturica, remarkable in his first major acting role) who, having killed a man during a brawl, reforms under the couple’s compassionate care. The consequences are as harsh as the wind battering Saint-Pierre’s rocky coastline, and as inevitable.

It only sounds simple, this tragic drama about the death penalty among people familiar with the chopping block. (The French nicknamed their guillotine la veuve — the widow — giving the film’s title added weight.) In fact, as he did in Ridicule, French director Patrice Leconte offers a profound study of sincerity and hypocrisy, liberated by the cover of historical panoply he so lovingly re-creates — the romance of long skirts and army officers’ smart uniforms — to ask timeless, hard questions about human behavior.

The subtle selectivity of Leconte’s eye, how he moves with great control from gesture to gesture, is matched by the disciplined intensity of the performances — particularly that of the physically expressive Auteuil, who, with his galvanizing gaze, creates a jail captain as complex as Saint-Pierre’s capital punishment laws are blunt. Even in junk like The Eighth Day Auteuil is classy; working again with Leconte (who directed him in the swoony love story Girl on the Bridge), he’s spectacular. A-LS


The Widow of Saint-Pierre

STARRING Juliette Binoche Daniel Auteuil LIONS GATE RATED R 108 MINUTES