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Movie Reviews

Saint Omer ★★★★★



Directed: Alice Diop

Cast: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Valérie Dréville, Aurélia Petit

Released: 3rd February 2023 (UK Cinemas)

The grounded, realistic tendencies of documentarian Alice Diop are clear to see in Saint Omer, her first fictional feature film. Not only is her initial foray into the narrative world based on a true court case, but Diop also gives the film an unassuming, observant eye. From this, the viewer becomes a patient witness to the compelling onscreen events. The cumulative result is a startling, mesmerising legal drama based largely inside a courtroom – which might be the most complex and layered film of 2022. After directing a number of documentaries between 2005 to 2021, Diop’s transition to fictional storytelling is so seamless and impressive that it is scarcely believable – and still, her vigilant eye for realism remains.

Saint Omer might be a narrative film, but its plot is based firmly in real events – namely, the 2016 French court case of Fabienne Kabou. In Diop’s film, Guslagie Malanda plays Laurence Coly, who is, like Kabou, a woman charged with the murder of her 15-month-old child. Professor and novelist Rama (played by an emotive, engaging Kayije Kagame) travels to the town of Saint-Omer to witness this court case and inform a new book she is writing about the event. Saint Omer wastes no time in entering the courtroom, swiftly forming Rama’s character through a lunch with her family and a short flashback before moving to its core narrative. In time, Rama’s anxieties about her own pregnancy and the strained relationship with her mother become mirrored in Laurence. Long takes and static camerawork engulfs the courtroom scenes, with Malanda giving a striking, unwavering performance of extended monologues which describe Laurence’s life and the tragic event.

Despite this restrained visual style, every frame is carefully constructed by Diop and her DOP, Claire Mathon, whose status as one of the industry’s leading cinematographers has already been established through films such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Atlantics. Meticulous framing of people such as Rama or Laurence’s mother in the courtroom signifies, without words, their own reactions to the trial, whilst Laurence’s isolation is amplified by wide shots that capture only herself and the drab walls behind her. Visual flourishes come out later in Saint Omer when the action moves away from the courtroom; there is a fascinating construction and symbolism to all of these shot compositions.

In turn, this impressive, plotted density is also present in Diop’s screenplay, which was co-written with Amrita David and Maria NDiaye. At first, Saint Omer might feel like an engaging but rather classic legal drama, but it eventually morphs into a film of great intricacy. Saint Omer is not just about Laurence’s experiences and actions; it is a close analysis of society as a whole, of the immigrant experience, and of the racism and misogyny present within institutions. Laurence is rightly not drawn as a villain. There is much more to the case than that.

Perhaps most of all, the film is a startling and refreshing portrayal of motherhood and all of its seismic elements. The screenplay captures the fear and anxiety of becoming a mother, the isolation it can bring, and the deep connection between mother and child. It is a connection that men don’t and won’t ever understand; Saint Omer firmly situates women at its centre, becoming not just an engaging courtroom drama but a searing, layered piece of feminist cinema. An ending monologue followed by quick edits – Amrita David’s swift, thoughtful editing throughout Saint Omer is consistently excellent – that captures the different women’s faces in the courtroom must rank as one of the most powerful moments in a film from the last few years.

Despite the distanced tone and unobtrusive eye, Saint Omer has startling moments of humanity and clarity, and your investment in the film, which may have only been subconsciously there, becomes fully apparent. Diop offers insightful commentaries as opposed to conclusions, nowhere more so than in Saint Omer’s ambiguous ending, which differs from the court’s decision in the real-life case. Her documentarian tendencies come to light again and again as real life becomes reflected in fiction and facts are blurred – not even Laurence can offer a solid reason for her actions. At once highly personal and overarchingly universal, Saint Omer warrants multiple viewings thanks not only to its engaging narrative qualities but also due to its rare intelligence and complexity.

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