Inspired not only by a true story, but by filmmaker Alice Diop's obsession with it, this Oscar-shortlisted French legal drama is simply stunning.
May 25, 2023
In 2016, a French documentarian with Senegalese heritage attended the trial of a Senegalese French PhD student who confessed to killing her 15-month-old daughter, who was fathered by a white partner, by leaving her on the beach to the mercy of the waves at Berck-sur-Mer. The filmmaker was fixated. She describes it as an "unspeakable obsession". She was haunted by questions about motherhood, too — her mum's and her own, given that she was a young mother herself as she sat in the courtroom. That story is the story of how Saint Omer came to be, and also almost exactly the tale that the piercing drama tells. In her first narrative film after docos We and La Permanence, writer/director Alice Diop focuses on a French author and literature professor with a Senegalese background who bears witness to a trial with the same details, also of a Senegalese French woman, for the same crime. Saint Omer's protagonist shares other traits with Diop as she observes, too, and watches and listens to research a book.
A director riffing on their own experience isn't novel, but Saint Omer is strikingly intimate and authentic because it's the embodiment of empathy in an innately difficult situation. It shows what it means to feel for someone else, including someone who has admitted to a shocking crime, and has been made because Diop went through that far-from-straightforward process and was galvanised to keep grappling with it. What a deeply emotional movie this 2022 Venice International Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winning feature is, understandably and unsurprisingly. What a heartbreaking and harrowing work it proves as well. Saint Omer is also an astoundingly multilayered excavation of being in a country but never being seen as truly part it, and what that does to someone's sense of self, all through Fabienne Kabou's complicated reality and Laurence Coly's (Guslagie Malanda, My Friend Victoria) fictionalised scenario.
As Laurence gets her time in court, Diop takes it all in. "It would make life easier" is the defendant's early characterisation of her crime, a gut-punch of a way to describe infanticide. But before Laurence unravels the minutiae of her life prior to and after moving from Senegal to study — and her daughter Lili's brief existence and death — Rama (film debutant Kayije Kagame) is dreaming, being comforted by her French partner Adrien (Thomas de Pourquery, Perfect Nanny), teaching and finally making the trip for the trial. When she packs, she grabs a sleeping bag. When she checks into her hotel, she replaces the bed's quilt with this small piece of home. It's a revealing gesture, conveying how intensely that Rama is already connecting with Laurence and her journey through the justice system; they're strangers but, as Rama gathers specifics for her book, which will compare Laurence's plight to Medea, this is never anything less than personal.
The bulk of Saint Omer is chatter, as Laurence is questioned about what happened, why, her studies, her hopes and dreams, and her relationships with her mother (Salimata Kamate, Represent) and Lili's father (Xavier Many, Notre Dame on Fire). In France's legal setup, interrogating isn't limited to attorneys — the judge (Valérie Dréville, Wonder in the Suburbs) guides the proceedings, with Laurence's lawyer (Aurélia Petit, Rosalie) and prosecuting counsel (Robert Cantarella, My Best Part) inquiring sporadically. The defendant states from the outset that she killed her baby, but doesn't consider herself responsible. She wants the trial to inform not just the court but herself as to why this tragedy occurred. She brings up sorcery, and the immediate incredulity that hangs in the air in a room with only two other Black people, her mum and Rama, is among the plethora of ways that Diop calls attention to the contrast between France as a racially diverse nation and the truth of not being white in the European country.
Befitting a movie about a writer, language is one of Saint Omer's stars, courtesy of a script co-written by Diop with the film's editor Amrita David, plus Marie N'Diaye (White Material). Often reworking text from Kabou's case, Laurence's story is told in such an evocative fashion that picturing what she's saying is a given. She talks, and cinematographer Claire Mathon (Spencer, and also Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman and Portrait of a Lady on Fire) hones in on that talking — always as Laurence wears skin-tone matching shirts that visually reinforce how invisible she feels; always standing against wooden panelling with the same effect; and always expressing as much in her stance, gaze and all the things she doesn't say. Occasionally, the judge takes the frame, or lawyers, witnesses or Rama, usually centred. Diop wants viewers to focus on their words, too, and the reactions betrayed by their faces and physicality. This is filmmaking at its most meticulous and emotional, with such carefully measured scenes proving puncturing and searing.
As talk flows, so does judgement within the court and beyond. Rama begins querying herself — in her dreams, alone in her hotel, and via flashbacks to her childhood, where things with her mum (first-timer Adama Diallo Tamba) are complex and tense — but the scrutiny Laurence is placed under transcends her deeds. While Saint Omer doesn't excuse her actions for a second, it keeps illustrating how life in France has treated and continues to treat her, and why Rama can spy echoes between their otherwise vastly dissimilar predicaments. During a call after part of the testimony, Rama's editor (Alain Payen, Golden Moustache) notes that Laurence speaks "very sophisticated French". There's no doubting that that wouldn't be said about someone white with the same college background; Rama replies that she just "talks like an educated woman". When the judge also can't believe the claims of witchcraft, or entertain diving into what they mean, it too is a loaded response.
There are no easy moments in Saint Omer, or easy answers. There can't be. Diop looks at this delicate situation with sensitivity and probing — and, in yet another parallel with Rama, questions why she's making the film, what she's saying about the situation, the role of myth in processing the incomprehensible, and motherhood's many intricacies and challenges. Indeed, this is a movie made with uncompromising rigour as well as understanding, as expected from a documentary filmmaker turning to fiction. It's a stunning legal drama that's as brilliantly crafted as Custody, another Venice standout from France about a grim situation. And, it's home to astonishing performances by Malanda and Kagame, each haunting in their own ways. Diop will never forget Kabou, and audiences won't be able to get her film, its extraordinary story or its exceptional lead actors out of their heads, either.
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