You may have noticed Saint Omer popping up on some film critics’ year-end Top 10 lists. I took in France’s entry into the International Feature Oscar race during the crush of awards season and did not rate it as highly as that. However, now that it’s opening at the AMC theaters at Grapevine Mills and the Parks Mall this week, I think I should probably comment on it, because it does rate an audience.
This is the first fiction film directed by Alice Diop, a documentarian of Senegalese extraction. In 2016, she attended the murder trial of Fabienne Kabou, and the events here are based on her experiences there. Her fictional alter ego is Rama (Kayije Kagame), a Black Parisian journalist and novelist who travels to the town of Saint-Omer on France’s southern coast, where Senegalese immigrant Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is on trial for leaving her infant daughter on the beach to be swept away by the tide. The accused admits her guilt but tells the court that she is going through the trial in hopes that she might receive an answer to why she did it.
The press coverage of the Kabou trial was marked by white journalists expressing their amazement that the defendant spoke such excellent French on the witness stand despite being Black and an immigrant and the perpetrator of such a heinous crime. I’m not familiar enough with racism in a French context to make any comments on that besides the obvious, though I will say that all the concern with the manner of speech at a murder trial strikes me as extremely French. It surely didn’t escape Diop’s notice, and she films the legal proceedings carefully, with cinematographer Claire Mathon imparting beauty and shade to the sun-drenched courtroom. Call me old-fashioned or maybe just not French enough, but I prefer a bit more thunder and theatrics in my courtroom dramas, the way there is in this season’s Argentina 1985.
Still, there is one terrific moment when Laurence spots Rama from the witness stand and smiles for the only time during the trial. What is that? Is it an admission that she has no remorse for her crime? A bid for sympathy? Or just a simple recognition of the only Black person in the courtroom who’s not related to her? Whatever it is, Diop tracks the way that the pressures of second-class treatment and working menial jobs caused her to snap and kill a child whom she loved, by all accounts. Saint Omer does leave you to draw many other conclusions, and that makes it an unsettling example of Black filmmaking from another corner of the world.
Starring Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanga. Directed by Alice Diop. Written by Alice Diop, Amrita David, and Marie N’Diaye. Rated PG-13.