While the film holds all the striking realism of a documentary, the emotional depth displayed by French filmmaker Alice Diop bounces between a courtroom drama and a cinema verité chamber piece with emotionally charged results. Saint Omer, Diop’s first dramatic narrative feature, provides thoughtful commentary in the heart of the historic French town with sharp humility and dignity–linking class, gender, and race. A gripping drama about a murder trial that mostly takes place in real time, the film indulges in an overlong running time of nearly two hours that holds some very potent drama in the courtroom scenes but could have used a tweak in the editing room to enhance the film’s pacing. Somewhere, a 95-minute cut would have felt less exhausting, but the stirring film still works as it unfolds with great compassion and empathy, for which it is no surprise that it’s on the current Academy Award shortlist for best international film.
While the film’s content about a novelist attending a trial of a mother accused of drowning her 15-month-old daughter sounds bleak, Diop executes the film in a way where the viewer is faced with a wide-range of human complexities, emotions, nuances, and conundrums that hold a deft examination of some thoughtful characterizations of a noble woman who can empathize with the injustices and obstacles the alleged woman on trial is faced with. There is rather a thoughtful dichotomy between the two women, but there are some similarities as well. The film eventually becomes a portrait about observing one’s horrific mistakes, learning how a certain tragedy could arise, and eventually reflecting on a tragedy and one’s misfortunes and carrying on with more hope.
This is measured through the strength of the film’s performances by Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanda, where both women anchor the film. The film opens with Rama (Kagame). She’s a young novelist who decides to attend a local trial to adapt a modern story that holds parallels with the ancient Greek story of Medea. Before entering the courtroom, Diop observes Rama’s life as if she’s in a documentary. We see she has a strained relationship with her Senegalese French mother, and she has a white boyfriend who is devoted to her. When she enters the courtroom, not only do we realize the trial reflects Medea, but it reflects Rama’s own life as well. We’re introduced to Laurence Coly (Malanda), who plays the defendant accused of such a deplorable crime. She also shares striking similarities with Rama. Both women are academics; Rama studied literature and writing, and Laurence studied philosophy. The similarities don’t stop there, Laurence has a disconnected relationship with her Senegalese mother as well, and both women have older white boyfriends as well.
As the trial escalates, the staging starts off quite spellbinding (though lengthy) with just three impressively staged and framed shots by Diop and cinematographer Claire Mathon that involve Laurence standing in a witness box, Rama sitting down in the back of the courtroom, and the judge ((Valerie Deéville) hovering with inquisitive cross-examination. Laurence and Rama’s emotions are extremely expressive and emotive. Indeed, because the drama and emotion are so engaging and rich, I wouldn’t be surprised if Saint Omer is later adapted into a play. As we hear Laurence’s testimony as she is being grilled with questions by the judge, you can observe just how involved and equally saddened Rama is with her plea for innocence. We can sense how close the trial is to home, and Rama watches the trial without saying anything in a very understated performance by Kagame; you can read her every anxiety. Rama begins to reflect that she holds a lot of the same disadvantages, but one thing she has going for her is a stronger support system from a more loving boyfriend, and perhaps her mother is more caring than she even realizes.
Eventually, the Medea framework for Rama’s novel looks glum. The film takes breaks within the trial, during which Rama ends up talking with Laurence’s mother outside the courtroom. She never takes the stand, Laurence does talk about her mother on the stand, and I go back to the hotel and rest up as we learn she is 4 months pregnant herself. She begins to re-examine whether she even wants to continue writing a novel on the agony and suffering of black women.
Diop goes back into the courtroom, and her shots are even tighter to show the final days of the trial. Rama has anxieties and confesses to her partner that they could end up in the same scenarios as Laurence’s. The fate of Laurence is left more ambiguous, but it’s clear her fate will not be as liberating as Medea’s, who is able to escape from her crimes. It really becomes a chronicle of uncomfortable, inherent truths. Laurence was disowned by her father after changing majors and ending up as a mistress to a married man, who gets her pregnant, but he neglects her and the baby, and Laurence claims the drowning was an accident. Saint Omer never acquits or rationalizes Laurence’s crime, it just observes how circumstances arise, and how high the odds are stacked against you when you are an immigrant and a person of color.
Diop discovers them thanks to her documentary background and determination to seek out emotional truths. She digs deep into the narrative she co-wrote with co-writers Amrita David and Marie NDiaye. Both Kagame and Malanga match Diop’s naturalism with their performances, and Kagame’s characterization and performances match the film’s virtues. With skillful directing and emotionally charged performances, this is adequate proof that Diop is capable of delivering just as much dramatic momentum to fictionalized life as she can with real life.
Saint Omer opens in limited theaters on Friday, Jan 13th. It will be opening at the Detroit Film Theater on January 29th and 30th. Please visit Saint Omer | Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (dia.org) for tickets and showtimes.