Saint Omer – movie review

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) 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. 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.

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. It’s easy to see her interest in this story which explores themes of complex mother/daughter relationships, race, guilt, human connections and the immigrant experience. Saint Omer was 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 N’Diaye have drawn heavily from the actual trial transcripts to shape the film.

However, Diop’s sparse and stylistic direction, her restrained 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 is also heavily dialogue-driven. But while a character is talking Cesar award winning cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) 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. The trial itself avoids the usual cliches of the courtroom drama. But it thus 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 (My Friend Victoria) brings subtle nuances to her 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, it’s not an easy film to watch or understand. It probably won’t appeal to casual cinemagoers more attuned to the light entertainment of vapid blockbusters.

Greg King

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