Volume 3, Number 3, December 2012

A Word from the Editor

The guillotine and the death penalty, outlaws and criminals, are the subjects of this month’s reviews.  Smuggler extraordinaire Louis Mandrin, executed in 1755, became a legend in his own day and a popular hero after his death. Les chants de Mandrin investigates the survival of the gang after their leader’s execution and the politicization of Mandrin’s attacks on the General Farm. Although ostensibly addressing the construction of the legend through songs (La complainte de Mandrin being the most famous), it is the world of print and its underground circulation that most interest the director, Michael Kwass explains. In spite of its historical inaccuracies, the film offers a great opportunity to discuss the fiscal duress of the French state and the responses of the population. An added bonus: although as yet only available on region 2 French DVD, the disc comes with optional English subtitles.

Tom Cragin shows us through his analysis of Lacenaire and La veuve de Saint-Pierre how we can address our students’ fascination with the guillotine and our own (bourgeois) romanticization of criminality. Pierre-François Lacenaire, executed in 1836 for multiple murders, had his own obsession with the guillotine, but also firm views about the nature of his crimes that history has prefered to obscure. Can we understand nineteenth-century criminality through such distortions, Cragin wonders? The 1990 film starring Daniel Auteuil may be contrasted to the Lacenaire of Les Enfants du paradis (1945); the recently restored version is the subject of a special exhibition of the French Cinémathèque, accessible at this site.

Set in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, The Widow of Saint-Pierre transposes a crime committed in the 1880s to 1850 in order to echo the conflicts of the Second Republic.  While awaiting the guillotine that the French government has to send especially, a brutal murderer (played by an ultra-sympatico Emir Kusturica) is « reformed » by a caring middle-class officer’s wife. Although the killer wins the support of the fishing community, the melodrama focuses on the the island’s military commander and his wife, who side with the islanders to the ire of the island’s conservative elites. Tom Cragin explains how this very narrative can elicit discussion of nineteenth-century politics and of popular leadership.

A piece on the farcical Les aventures de Rabbi Jacob and Le chat du rabbin could not appear in this issue and will do so at a later date.

Liana Vardi
University at Buffalo, SUNY


Table of Contents

The Buzz

Smugglers’ Songs, by Michael Kwass

Classics in the Classroom

À bas la guillotine! Vive la bourgeoisie? Lacenaire and The Widow of Saint Pierre, by Thomas Cragin

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