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Saint Omer Review

Saint Omer Review

An academic specialising in the study of shamed women throughout history, Rama (Kayije Kagame) travels to the French town of Saint-Omer to write about the trial of Laurence (Guslagie Malanda). Laurence has been accused of killing her 15 month-old baby by drowning her in the sea – it’s a crime she admits to, and yet she pleads ‘not guilty’, professing to be as clueless as to why she’d do such a thing as everybody else is, even floating sorcery as a potential reason. As the trial unfolds, we learn more about her lonely, difficult life leading up to the tragedy. And Rama, in the early stages of a pregnancy she feels decidedly ambivalent about, is unsettled by how much she and Laurence have in common.

Although this is her first narrative film, Alice Diop has made various non-fiction features and shorts over the seventeen years of her directorial career. Saint Omer is very much a product of her documentarian’s eye, and not just because it is based on an actual court case that Diop herself bore witness to, as Rama does.

Whilst the case itself could have been treated as pure tabloid fuel (Mother kills baby! Blames witchcraft!), Diop approaches it with a cool, watchful eye, letting scenes play long, and often shooting with a static camera. For the bulk of the movie, the music is minimal – and when it’s not, as in a bravura culminating sequence scored by Nina Simone’s ‘Little Girl Blue’, the choice of it is perfect. At almost every juncture she refuses to sensationalise or unnecessarily heighten the emotion, letting the participants in the story speak for themselves.

Though her storytelling method is cool, there’s a warmth to Saint Omer that transcends its sad details. At no point does Diop come close to excusing what Laurence did, but neither is her crime ever used as an excuse to deny her humanity. She’s far from the perfect defendant, and she’s never portrayed simply as a victim, yet her mindset it clearly important in discovering why she did what she did – that the movie listens to her story with such open-minded, non-judgmental patience, that the various affronts she herself experienced are given due consideration (many stem from so often being the only Black woman in a largely white space, mirrored by how in the trial Laurence, her mother, and Rama are the sole POC in the room), feels far more revolutionary than it should.

With the movie gliding so compellingly and complexly through most of the run-time, it’s frustrating that so close to the end, in Laurence’s defence attorney’s cloying closing speech, for the first time we actually are told what to think, with intercuts of teary trial witnesses thrown in for good measure. But it’s a small misstep in a film that’s otherwise largely free of them. For the most part, Saint Omer is a challenging, thoughtful, mesmerising feature, sure to have viewers checking out Diop’s previous non-fiction work, and looking forward to whatever comes next from her.


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