Venice 2022

Saint Omer review – a riveting courtroom drama of multi-layered intensity

Alice Diop's first narrative feature is a heart-stopping moral puzzle, featuring an extraordinary turn from newcomer Kayije Kagame

Here is a film that is dizzyingly complex despite its deceptively simple premise: a Greek tragedy, a legal trial, and an inquiry into motherhood, mysticism and mental health all at once. In her first narrative feature Saint Omer, Alice Diop directs an expertly calibrated courtroom drama based on the 2013 true story of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese woman who abandoned her child on a beach in Northern France. Diop's lens is a magnifying glass to the power structures in French society that routinely fail and misunderstand Black women and African immigrants, as well as the sour-tasting techniques of Western emotional manipulation.

Our protagonist, Rama, is an academic with a complicated, yet largely unexplained, relationship with her mother. After sitting distractedly at a family gathering, the next day she kisses her husband goodbye and boards a train to the predominantly white town of Saint-Omer. It’s here where a legal trial that has been occupying the news for weeks is due to take place; it concerns a young woman named Laurence Coly who has confessed to killing her 15-month-old child. Rama is working on a book about Medea, the figure in Greek mythology who murdered her own sons, hence her scholastic interest in the case.

But once in the courtroom – where the details of the crime are revealed in minute, painstaking detail – Rama finds herself increasingly overwhelmed. The bulk of screentime centres on Laurence’s testimony, who recounts her backstory in a stupor: how she moved to France from Senegal and soon nurtured an interest in the philosophers Descartes and Wittgenstein, before falling in love with a white, married, 57-year-old French man and moving in with him. Once pregnant she fell into a deep depression, struggled with agoraphobia, and soon became convinced that her family back home had cursed her with an “evil eye,” sorcery being her only explanation for the events that lead to the death of her daughter. Her defense counsel is trying to plead insanity, meaning Laurence could serve her sentence in a hospital rather than a prison.

But it’s in the trial’s small details where the most shocking nuggets of information reveal themselves. Particularly revealing is the testimony of Laurence’s ex-partner, who describes the vulnerable woman he impregnated as paranoid, jealous, crazy, aggressive (in complete contrast to the prison wardens who state that Laurence is undemanding and calm). There’s an inherent literary feel to proceedings, with a level of analysis, patience and stillness that transfixes you; it’s a far cry from, say, the endless stream of BBC or ITV courtroom dramas that resort to soap-style theatrics, squeezing the genre dry of any emotional truth.

Giving an extraordinary, layered performance in her film debut, Kayije Kagame imbues Rama with a graceful stoicism that becomes more fractured and affecting as the trial progresses, her academic intent being replaced with a sympathy and kinship for the woman on the stand. Equally impressive is Guslagie Malanda as Laurence: she wears her features like a mask, with a storm of feeling brewing deep beneath the surface. Diop’s direction is unobtrusive and effective, allowing us to drink in Claire Mathon’s warm, rich cinematography that hyper-focuses our attention in long takes. In particular, sound design – there’s one moment where Rama and Laurence’s breathing syncs, and you feel your heart stop in your chest – is masterful, the score overlaying tension with a cacophony of breathing noises.

It is a courtroom drama with no verdict, with two leads who never meet. Yet with piercing dignity and a refusal to give easy answers to the mountain of moral conundrum at play, Saint Omer is a stunning feat that forces you to puzzle through proceedings led only by your heart, which beats in your chest like the hammering of a gavel.

Saint Omer was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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