Saint Omer (2022)

Saint Omer
Director: Alice Diop
Writer: Amrita David, Alice Diop, Marie N’Diaye, Zoé Galeron
Cast: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Valérie Dréville, Aurélia Petit, Xavier Maly, Robert Cantarella, Salimata Kamate, Thomas de Pourquery
Part of: Viennale
Seen on: 31.10.2022

Cotent Note: child death (off-screen), (critical treatment of) misogynoir

Rama (Kayije Kagame) is working on a novel, a retelling of the Medea myth. So when she hears about Laurence (Guslagie Malanda) who is accused of drowning her child and will be prosecuted for it in Saint Omer, she travels to the small town to watch the trial. But the trial and Laurence have a very different effect on Rama than she expected, an effect that is unsettling for her.

Saint Omer unfolds slowly and almost stationary, peeling back layer and layer from both Laurence and Rama, revealing bit by bit how much their stories have in common. I found it incredibly engaging.

The film poster showing Laurence (Guslagie Malanda) in the witness stand.

It feels like most of the film consists of Laurence, and a few others, giving testimony in long monologues. Generally, the script is rather dry, with very few scenes outside the courtroom (and most of those in Rama’s sterile hotel room or showing glimpses of her past, the latter almost lost in the strength of the courtroom scenes), the pacing slow and the camera very calm. But instead of limiting or even boring, the restraint in how the film is made gives the story the necessary space to breathe.

Laurence story weighs heavily in that setting. It’s a story of complicated hopes and hopes lost, of isolation and mental illness, of dependencies and lack of options. Malanda’s performance is simply fantastic, delving deep into the character with very few tools at her disposal. Her trial is shaped by the (white) court – judge, prosecutor, defence attorney – and their perception of her, a Black migrant woman from Senegal. Diop makes the racism she faces visible without making it explicit.

Rama (Kayije Kagame) in the court audience.

Rama seems the opposite of Laurence at first. Though also a Black woman from Senegal and about to become a mother herself, she has career options, a support network and success. But it’s easy to see why she would be so unsettled by the trial. The things that separate her from Laurence mostly boil down to luck – and that is a harsh truth to swallow.

Diop takes you on Rama’s journey and it is a riveting one where she has to both consider Laurence and herself in a new light. It’s fascinating to watch and will stay with you long after the film ended.

Laurence (Guslagie Malanda) in the witness stand.

Summarizing: beautiful and thought-provoking.

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