2022, PG-13, 122 min. Directed by Alice Diop. Starring Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanga, Salih Sigirci, Valérie Dréville, Xavier Maly, Thomas de Pourquery, Aurélia Petit.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Jan. 13, 2023
Based closely on the 2016 trial of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese woman convicted of murdering her infant daughter by abandoning the 15-month-old on a beach at rising tide in Northern France, Saint Omer follows the structural conventions of a typical courtroom drama. However, filmmaker Alice Diop uses those tropes to pursue a complex meditation on the emotional spaces that separate us from one another; to realize how wide the chasm is between us, or to recognize (sympathetically, fearfully, reluctantly) that there is no distance there at all.
For French-born Senegalese woman Rama (Kagame), a novelist and university lecturer in Paris (and stand-in for Diop), the trial is material for her next book. After a prologue that lays out Rama’s entire dynamic with her family with a brilliant, often wordless economy (she’s expecting a child with her lover, she’s utterly estranged from her mother), she travels to the courthouse in the city of Saint-Omer to witness the trial. The accused, here named Laurence Coly (Malanga), initially offers a blunt motive for the crime: “It would make life easier.” But it becomes clear that she is either mentally unstable or coldly calculating. Or maybe she is both of those things. Various testimonies contradict each other, with Laurence often refuting her own words. What emerges is a portrait of a highly intelligent woman groomed from childhood to succeed, a fierce intellectual described as “difficult” and “aggressive,” an immigrant who feels destined to leave an indelible mark on the world. Laurence’s story has a profound effect on Rama, the similarities of their life experiences coloring her once placid features with increased emotional anxiety, as Laurence remains stoically behind a mask of perpetual defiance.
But is it a mask? Saint Omer leaves that for the viewer to determine, as the film lays down its cards in eloquent succession. The overwhelming pressure of an immigrant to have a better life. The casual racism of academia, and the “novelty” of a West African speaking perfect French. The cultural beliefs to be exploited or misunderstood. The destructive extremes of the maternal instinct: to neglect or to smother. The self-deceptions we create to stave off the madness. And ultimately, the peace we must embrace to move on, to bridge those distances dividing us. To contemplate these themes in a film borne from the most horrific of tragedies is no small feat, and Saint Omer is no small feat. It is riveting and uncompromising cinema of the highest order.