Despite terrific performances and impactful commentary, Saint Omer ’s languid and somewhat indulgent style might alienate some.
There’s a subtlety and an indulgence in the construction of Alice Diop’s Saint Omer that stems from the director’s past work as a documentarian. In her fictional debut, Diop utilises her personal connection to a real-life case of infanticide to explore the complex trauma, isolation and raw emotional upheaval of the immigrant mother – and womanhood experience in France.
Rama (Kayije Kagame), a pregnant writer, finds herself captivated by the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), who is accused of murdering her 15-month-old daughter by abandoning her on a beach in Saint Omer, a small town in Northern France. The trial brings into focus Rama’s relationships with her own mother and her unborn child, as well as posing the question as to how someone like Laurence – an educated, eloquent young woman who delivers most of her testimony in a calm, measured manner – could be driven to commit such an abhorrent act.
Despite it being a fiction film, there’s a documentary ‘feel’ to Saint Omer that comes from its unflinching camera work – courtesy of cinematographer Claire Mathon – and the languid nature of its storytelling. It’s a full twenty minutes before the specific details of the case are revealed to the audience, and it’s done in-situ via the judge (Valérie Dréville) as she begins the courtroom proceedings. As such, it feels a bit like watching a play, in that there’s an intimate, observational nature to Diop’s direction and the shocking and banal moments of a court case are given equal treatment. It’s a bold stylistic choice, and if the audience connects with it, and can deal with that subdued and languid style, then it’d undoubtedly be really affecting. If not, then it can feel a little indulgent, a little too focused on the naturalistic elements rather than the bolstering performances in between the lingering silences, and drag a little as a result.
And Kagame and Malanda truly do give terrific performances. Stoic, intense, raw and gut-wrenchingly emotional, their individual and shared experiences are communicated through only the briefest of glances with each other and the intimate, static focus of the camera on each of them as Malanda testifies and Kagame listens. And while it’s Diop’s direction that gives them the freedom to slowly untangle their character’s emotional trauma, it’s a shame that – for me, at least – the method of storytelling was alienating enough to dilute the power of those moments.
Saint Omer is a powerful example of why the stories of women, particularly Black immigrant women, are so important and incendiary. While it is a searing look at the inherent violence, isolation and trauma of motherhood, it’s also a somewhat exhausting courtroom drama that indulges itself with capturing that documentary feel. And, as such, the decision on it might be split.
Saint Omer premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival on September 7, 2022 and at TIFF on September 13-18. The film will be screened at the BFI London Film Festival on October 10.