Director: Alice Diop
Stars: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Mulanda, Valérie Dréville
With Saint Omer the Whys are important, but also key to their importance is the understanding that there might be no answer. Here we have – in the plainest of terms – a courtroom drama. Set in the picturesque township of Saint Omer, a Senegalese woman named Laurence Coly (Guslagie Mulanda) is on trial for infanticide. She has admitted that she committed the crime; abandoning her 15-month-old daughter Elise (referred to again and again affectionately as ‘Lili’) on a beach with the tide rolling in. Yet she pleads not guilty to infanticide, ambiguously placing the blame elsewhere.
We come to this drama via another. Rama (Kayije Kagame) is a writer and lecturer of kindred lineage who finds herself drawn to the trial. The Whys for her are teased out by filmmaker Alice Diop over time, as Rama’s motives and parallels to Ms. Coly dapple the screen; shimmers of light cascading on a once blank canvas.
That Rama is a proxy for Diop herself feels nakedly obvious, even without knowing some of the history of the film’s genesis. Known and celebrated as a documentarian, Diop stages Saint Omer as narrative fiction out of necessity; one cannot film the past. It is based on her own experiences of becoming fixated on and attending the trial of Fabienne Kabou, whose story closely resembles Laurence’s. Diop’s act of restaging, however, takes one of the most humdrum and conformist of subgenres and breaks down much of it’s language. Diop favours long reaction shots and contemplative asides. She’ll sojourn into Rama’s POV, her attention diverted to Laurence’s mother Ms. Diatta (Salimata Kamate) or – when testimony becomes unbearably raw – out the window to the spires of nearby buildings. We’re taken away with Rama. We’re with her, not the trial.
The dolling out of information is inherently interesting, as are the procedures and rituals of the French prosecutorial system. From the beginning there is a charged racial tension in the room. A white jury for a Black woman of immediate African descent. Rama and Ms. Diatte notwithstanding, a white audience, and a white judge (Valérie Dréville). Then, a portrait of a woman filled with contradictions. Laurence is an academic – like Rama – with interests in philosophy. She is intelligent, scholarly. But her interview transcripts speak of curses and sorcery. The mystics and mediums she reached out to prior to her fateful decision have no memory of her. Senegalese folklore is an alien concept in a French courtroom. It acquires no purchase. While the judge seems fair and is moved by the testimonies given, we’re moved to empathise with Laurence, even as the evidence suggests she is lying. There is a singular moment here in which Rama and Laurence lock eyes, and there is a smirk. The effect is dazzling and genuinely disarming.
Saint Omer quietly breaks rules. In its defiance of the established – and dull – visual language of courtroom drama. In its defiance of the “show, don’t tell” school of thought. The pacing of the editing is akin to a Hou Hsiao-hsien picture. Scenes stretch out in real time, or are abruptly cut short, as if Diop’s attention has bottomed out. For the longest time it feels as though Saint Omer will have no score, then a capella voices wash over the picture; voices that Diop has linked to dreams and memory, blurring the instilled sense of reality within scenes that refocus our attention on Rama. On her experience of this trial. In one of the film’s boldest scenes – and these are in great supply – Laurence’s defense lawyer (Aurélia Petit) makes her stirring closing argument direct to camera. We become the jury, and her speech is quite loaded, speaking of women en masse as chimeras, as monsters intrinsically entwined within one another. A paperchain of hybrids.
Diop breaks another rule when it comes to resolution. Having been addressed as a jury member, it is ultimately up to us how to assign guilt. We’re left reaching for those Whys again. The closing of the film instead reaffirms running themes and the emotional journey for Rama. She returns home to the uneasy relationship that she has with her own mother (something that Diop delicately adds to the film via those scant memories and dreams entered into with understated nostalgia).
The quietness can make it feel chilly and detached, but this is countered by the deeply emotive (but never showy) performances from all it’s key players, and via the discipline of a filmmaker confident that her work will worm its way into her audience. I came out of Saint Omer with the feeling that I had a lot to digest, and I came to this blank document with a sense of foreboding. That I was not up to the task of drawing conclusions for you. Perhaps, as Diop herself argues with her film, that is not my job. This one grows in the aftermath like few other films I’ve encountered recently. It is bigger than the finite experience of watching it.