Kagame plays a writer obsessed with another woman's trial for murder in Diop's mesmerizing drama.
Many critics have lamented the omission of Saint Omer from the list of Best International Feature Film Oscar nominations. This first fiction feature from director-cowriter Alice Diop won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival and is the first film directed by a Black woman to represent France at the Oscars. You can see it at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury from February 24 to March 9 or rent it on various platforms.
Rama (Kayije Kagame), a Parisian professor and novelist, travels to the town of Saint-Omer to attend the trial of a young woman named Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), who has confessed to killing her 15-month-old daughter by leaving her on a beach at high tide.
Saint Omer, Alice Diop, Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Salimata Kamate, Xavier MalyHoping to write a book about the case, Rama tapes the courtroom proceedings and speaks with Laurence's mother (Salimata Kamate). As the disturbing testimony unfolds, we learn the writer has personal reasons for her fascination with Laurence, a Senegalese immigrant who came to Paris to study but was sidetracked by her lack of funds and her affair with a much older white man (Xavier Maly). Everyone in the courtroom wants to know: Was Laurence really driven to commit an unthinkable act by sorcery, as she sometimes claims, or by all-too-mundane forces?
Will you like it?
Saint Omer is far from a traditional legal drama, yet its courtroom scenes are riveting. Like Women Talking, this is a movie that explores the power of speech and testimony through a wrenching script — some of it drawn from the real trial of a woman named Fabienne Kabou — and extraordinary performances.
The movie begins in a fragmentary, elliptical mode that could alienate viewers: After an ominous glimpse of Laurence holding her child on the beach, we see everyday scenes of Rama with her husband, her students, her relatives. Kagame has a powerful presence, but Rama holds her emotions close to the chest, so it's not immediately clear how any of these scenes are connected or where they're going.
Then the defendant takes the stand, and we stop wondering why Rama is sitting in this courtroom. The narrative of Laurence Coly consumes us, just as it clearly has consumed her. In France's inquisitorial justice system, such a criminal trial is not primarily a duel between the prosecuting and defense attorneys but an extended interrogation of the accused by the judge, or présidente du tribunal (Valérie Dréville), with occasional witnesses called to supplement that testimony. And what a testimony it is.
From Laurence's first appearance, Malanda commands the screen. Even the camera seems to be mesmerized: Diop shoots Laurence's testimony in long takes, first in medium shots and later, as the trial nears its conclusion, closer up. Every shot is purposeful; rather than simply cut to whoever is speaking, Diop often lingers on a listener to examine their reaction.
Forced to stand for the length of the proceedings, Laurence does so proudly, dressed in golden browns that harmonize with her skin tone and the woodwork of the chamber, and speaks with precision and eloquence. If the courtroom feels like a theater, she has the bearing of a heroine of classical tragedy; it's no wonder that Rama imagines her as a modern Medea.
But behind this impressive persona are darker truths. In Senegal, we learn, Laurence's mother raised her to be a model of gentility and forbade her to speak her family's native language. She was taught to imitate the colonizers of her country, and when the newspapers now praise her flawless French, they perpetuate the standards that formed and deformed her. We learn how Laurence's socially approved quest for an elite education led her down a dead end of isolation — and how this alienation finally took her beyond the pale of human society, as it did Albert Camus' The Stranger.
We also learn why Laurence's story provokes such an intense identification in Rama, who was born in France but has a distant, difficult relationship with her Senegalese immigrant mother. This relationship is fleshed out in brief flashbacks, some of which work better than others. Overall, the semi-autobiographical framing of the story through Rama doesn't feel as assured as do the beautifully realized courtroom scenes, but it benefits from Diop's refusal to spell out any easily digestible message.
Although Laurence describes her crime in poetic terms, she can't hide its sheer horror — a horror that Rama, like the rest of the courtroom, eventually must confront. Saint Omer isn't a movie about seeing justice done or not done; it's a tale of pity and terror, the essentials of Aristotelian tragedy. We may not absolve Laurence by the final scenes, or even fully understand her, but we will never forget her.
If you like this, try...
We (2021; MUBI, rentable): Taking a commuter train that winds through the suburbs of Paris, home to many immigrant communities, Diop explores the many worlds the line traverses in this acclaimed documentary.
Towards Tenderness (2016; MUBI): In this documentary inspired by her own youth, Diop talks to young men in the Paris suburbs about what masculinity means to them.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959; Criterion Channel, rentable): Dialogue from this classic of the French new wave is heard in a scene in which Rama lectures her students on the Marguerite Duras novel on which it's based. Duras was fascinated with both motherhood and culpability, and the scene raises questions that resonate throughout Saint Omer.
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.