Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Alice Diop
Stars: Guslagie Malanda, Kayije Kagama, Thomas de Pourquery, Adama Diallo Temba, Valerie Dreville, Aurolia Petit, Xavier Malu.
Based on a true story, this is a dramatic recreation of a court case that took place in the French town of Saint Omer in 2016.
Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda, from My Friend Victoria and the tv series The Romanoffs, etc) is a young mother and Senegalese immigrant who is put on trial for having killed her fifteen months old daughter, supposedly to protect her from evil spirits and a curse placed on her by her aunts. Observing the trial is Rama (Kayije Kagame in her feature film debut), a writer and literary professor also of Senegalese background. Four months pregnant she feels some sort of emotional connection with Laurence. Rama plans to write a novel about the case, shaping it as a modern-day retelling of the Greek legend of Medea. As the trial continues Rama begins to feel increasingly uneasy and anxious about her own life and impending motherhood. And sequences with Rama and her mother reveal much about her own life.
Saint Omer is the first fictional feature film directed by Alice Diop, a filmmaker whose previous films have been documentaries exploring injustices and social issues in contemporary France, and it is easy to see her interest in this story which explores themes of complex mother/daughter relationships, race, guilt, human connections and the immigrant experience of being made to feel like an outsider. Saint Omer has been inspired by an actual court case which Diop attended and was moved by the events and tragic story that unfolded. Diop and co-writers Amrita David and Marie NDiaye have drawn heavily from the actual trial transcripts to shape the film.
However, Diop’s sparse and stylistic direction, her sense of restraint and deliberate directorial choices and enigmatic approach to the material keep the audience at an emotional distance from the drama playing out in the courtroom. The film itself is observational in style and Diop’s approach is decidedly unsympathetic. The film is also heavily dialogue driven. But while a character is talking Cesar award winning cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, etc) focuses the camera elsewhere, a distracting device that is not always successful. She shot the film largely in tones of brown and amber, adding to the bleak and sombre mood of the film. Diop and Mathon often work in long takes, and this gives the material the look and feel of a documentary at times. The trial itself avoids the usual cliches of the courtroom drama and thus it lacks any real dramatic tension and offers no clear resolution, and audiences may struggle to connect with it.
Anna le Mouel’s production design is superb, especially in recreating the interior of the courtroom with its brown paneled walls.
Malanda brings subtle nuances to her stoic and seemingly cold performance as Laurence and conveys her sense of guilt and uncertainty. And although Kagame’s role is largely passive and introspective, she allows a range of conflicting emotions to play out across her face, and we can see her processing her thoughts and fears while observing the trial.
While Saint Omer has received numerous awards and played well on the film festival circuit, I found it rather dull and plodding. It is not an easy film to watch or understand, and it will not appeal to casual cinemagoers more attuned to light entertainment of vapid blockbusters.