Film review: Saint Omer

Known for documentary filmmaking on contemporary French society, writer and director Alice Diop has transitioned from fact to fiction for her latest effort. Based upon the 2016 court case of Fabienne Kabou, legal drama Saint Omer follows teacher and novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame), as she researches the Greek tragedy of Medea for her next book. For inspiration, she attends the trial of Senegalese woman Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), accused of murdering her 15-month-old daughter.

Telling a story within a story, the narrative has an unusual but interesting structure. Rama is our protagonist, the film beginning and ending with her as she goes on an emotional journey from the courtroom benches. However, she is strangely side-lined for the most part, watching Laurence’s trial like us, the audience, as the details of the case unfold. Shot in a very matter-of-fact and almost anti-stylised manner, a static camera shifts between the defendant, judge, defence, and prosecution in a very procedural, documentarian fashion, but as the plot develops, this simplistic approach becomes incredibly compelling.

We learn about the defendant’s upbringing, education, and relationship with her baby’s father Luc (Xavier Maly), a much older man who takes the stand in one scene. Whilst she admits to killing her child, Laurence, a keen philosophy student, claims that she was the victim of sorcery, a bold statement that provides a jarring juxtaposition against the social-realist tone. This leads an exasperated barrister to say, ‘you’re not on the stage of the theatre, you’re in a court of law’. In contrast, the judge, played by Valérie Dréville, shows a degree of empathy, adding to the complexities of the film’s themes. In an impactful sequence, the defence lawyer breaks the fourth wall in a final appeal, looking down the lens as we shift from merely observing to becoming one of the jury. Frustratingly, we’re soon reminded that Rama is in fact the main character, and we return to her arc for the film’s closing moments.

Robbing us of a neat conclusion, Alice Diop cleverly illustrates the indefiniteness of the severe problems around race, immigration, class, and culture, that can send individuals into bouts of isolated despair, leading to, in Laurence’s extreme case, a shocking act of infanticide. This may be a work of fiction but thanks to authentic turns from Kagame and Malanda, Saint Omer effectively speaks its truth.


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