“Saint Omer is a film that is powerful in its ideas as well as its execution, a pared-down narrative whose biggest strength lies in the woman it puts on the stand.”
A beach at night, a woman alone carrying her baby to the shoreline. Without showing it, Alice Diop, director of competition entry Saint Omer, lets the foreboding music and handheld camerawork clue the audience in on what is about to happen. It is a strong opening of Diop’s debut feature film, a slow-burn court drama that touches upon the cultural differences between Western Europe and its immigrants from Africa, both when it comes to motherhood and to the legal system, framed by the story of a novelist who attends the court trial of that woman on the beach to use it for an adaptation of the ancient Medea myth. Precise and stripped-down direction mark a bold entry punctuated by a cathartic finale that demonstrates Diop is just as well-equipped to handle fiction as she is to handle documentary.
Saint Omer is the beach location where the crime of infanticide, perpetrated by Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), took place. Her trial is attended by Rama (Kayije Kagame), like Laurence of Senegalese descent, a college professor and writer who is planning to use Laurence’s trial as inspiration for a new novel. Rama and her partner are expecting a child, although Rama is anxious to keep this news from her family; as it will turn out, very much like Laurence. This is the first of several parallels to the story of the woman on trial, a story we will hear over the course of the court proceedings. There is no denial on Laurence’s part: she admits she left her 15-month-old on the beach to let her be washed away by the sea. What she wants to find out during the trial is why she did it, because she doesn’t understand her own motives, to the despair of the court.
Diop’s background as a documentarian shines through in Saint Omer, both in the way she lets the narrative unfold and in specific directorial and compositional choices. The way the court case is filmed is meticulous, from the initial jury selection process down to the final plea by Laurence’s lawyer. Most of the film is spent inside the courtroom, listening to the testimonies of Laurence herself, of her partner and father of her child, as well as by expert witnesses. Diop shows these in static frames, mostly close-ups and mid-shots, in a style that befits the documentarian in her. She allows herself more freedom in the scenes involving Rama that form the framing device; Rama recognizes a lot of herself in Laurence’s story. The occasional flashback to her youth, as well as a mixture of social realism and melodrama carry Rama’s story forth, though the majority of the film focuses on Laurence through Rama’s gaze.
It is no surprise then that the film belongs to Malanga, whose superbly steadfast yet fragile performance as the woman in the court dock is utterly convincing. It has to be, because Laurence truly feels that there were perhaps higher powers guiding her to her fateful act. Malanga renders the despair, but also the pride and dignity in her character with mostly quiet notes, bar an emotional breakdown late in the film. This is only Malanga’s second film (after a lead role in Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s My Friend Victoria), but her stunning performance in this film should guarantee that all eyes will be on her from here on. Kagame’s performance suffers a bit from the fact that her character is less distinctively written and deliberately kept more of a cipher, in particular because she has very little dialogue that pertains to her personal connection to the case. Diop tries to let the flashbacks do the heavy lifting, but this is not fully successful.
Diop’s somewhat dry, documentarist style could be a turn-off for some, but there is tremendous (emotional) depth in the story itself. Besides Laurence’s story and Rama’s connection to it there is also a cultural angle played in the film. Both Laurence and her mother, who Rama intermittently meets when court is adjourned, believe there might have been sorcery at play. This is not just a defence tactic but an actual conviction, something that clashes with the Western mentalities of a court that doesn’t allow for such argument (Laurence’s lawyer essentially turns it into a mental disorder defence in her closing argument). Racist remarks, both veiled and unveiled, are levelled at Laurence and her story over the course of the trial. Diop, however, leaves the ‘why’ question hanging, refusing to choose sides in the legal argument. This may seem like a cop-out, but it underlines the cultural difficulties faced by immigrants when trying to navigate our Western societies. Diop follows in the footsteps of French writer Marguerite Duras here, who famously took a well-known infanticide case to turn its perpetrator, Christine Villemin, into a heroine revolting against a patriarchal society by killing her son. In essence Diop does the same here, emphasized by the fact that at the end of the trial the audience in the courtroom has been reduced to women only. This directorial flourish, combined with women in both the audience and on the other side of the court fence crying by the end of the trial, is perhaps a bit much, but Diop’s point is clear and well-made. The Duras reference is easy enough to make, not in the least because Rama explicitly mentions her to her students in the film’s opening scene; the other reference to son-killers (a fragment from Pasolini’s Medea about the mythical queen’s dramatic life choices) is a tad superfluous and on-the-nose.
With Saint Omer Alice Diop announces herself as a talent in the world of fiction filmmaking; that she was a talent in filming the real world was already well-known. Even if Saint Omer has a clear documentarian footprint, it would actually be interesting if Diop took the idea as a starting point for an accompanying documentary about the cultural differences tackled in the film as well; it would be a strong double bill. But on its own, Saint Omer is a film that is powerful in its ideas as well as its execution, a pared-down narrative whose biggest strength lies in the woman it puts on the stand, Diop’s clear and distinct directorial voice holding it all together marvellously.