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Review: Saint Omer

January 20, 2023

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The narrative feature debut of documentary filmmaker Alice Diop, Saint Omer (France’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature) is an extremely understated and slow-moving legal drama that unfolds almost entirely within a French courtroom.

The film centres around Rama (Kayije Kagame), a professor and novelist who travels from Paris to Saint-Omer to watch the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a Senegalese immigrant who is accused of murdering her fifteen-month-old daughter by leaving the child on the beach to be swept away by the rising tide.

Rama is there because she plans to write a novel about the case, by turning it into a modern retelling of Medea. But questions remain as to why a mother would do such a heinous thing, something that Rama is trying to understand. Laurence speaks calmly on the stand and openly admits to her crime, though also appears paranoid and claims that evil spirits and curses were at work.

The film is based on a real court case that Diop watched unfold; that of Fabienne Kabou, who was convicted in 2016 of killing her daughter, and the screenplay draws from actual court transcripts. This knowledge lands an uncomfortable quality to the extremely detached style with which it is presented on screen. The courtroom scenes are stripped of emotion to the point that we start to wonder if the film is trying to present a sympathetic reason for Laurence’s crime due to her stated feelings of isolation as an African immigrant and new mother.

Diop’s film is a courtroom drama in the literal sense. Structurally, it basically unfolds through a series of overly drawn out extended scenes in court as Laurence is cross-examined on the stand. In this way, Diop takes an almost documentary-like approach to her fiction debut. But these blandly framed, mostly static shots of the trial don’t always make for compelling drama, and often feel overly stagey. Diop’s direction in general feels far too sterile and detached for a true story about a mother on trial for infanticide, and the performances themselves are understated to the point of feeling flat.

There are connecting scenes showing Rama, a Black woman who is pregnant herself, trying to process the proceedings outside the courtroom alone in her hotel, including flashbacks to her own mother. But Rama feels somewhat underdeveloped as a character, a vague stand-in for the director who is mostly shown blankly watching the trial. A prologue, including part of one of her lectures, barely fleshes out her character.

Malanda’s performance is cold, her monotone line deliveries flat and precise. Diop doesn’t so much grapple with the shocking nature of Laurence’s crime, but instead tries to prop her up as a dark mirror for motherhood and the immigrant experience. The trouble is that the nature of her crime – and the fact that the film is rooted in a real case – makes it hard to sympathize with her. The film is meant to become a study in body language, but the performances are too withdrawn to read much into them.

The unusually staid cinematography by Claire Mathon (Spencer, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) keeps us at a respectful distance, with the film’s sparse visual style adding to the overall coldness. We are meant to simply observe the proceedings, and it’s an approach that will work better for some, but I found Saint Omer a bit too ambiguous, and the film’s inherent narrative and moral vagueness keeps it from fully connecting as a deeper character study. It leaves us only with the uncomfortable question of whether Diop intends for us to sympathize with a mother who killed her own child.

Saint Omer is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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