For her first narrative film, French filmmaker Alice Diop brings the rhythms of her documentary background to reconstruct . In 2013, Fabienne Kabou left her 15-month-year old baby girl on a beach in Berck-sur-Mer to be claimed by the rising tide. Diop read about the story while pregnant and felt an intimate connection, one that she has written into “Saint Omer” through an alter-ego.
Rama (Kayije Kagame) is a pregnant academic who decides to watch the court case of the mother on trial, here rechristened Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), ostensibly as part of her research into the most famous baby killer of all, Medea. Despite her academic interest, the mere act of witnessing Laurence’s trial gets under Rama’s skin, and lines of association between Rama, Laurence, Rama’s unborn baby, and her very real mother are blurred until the central tragedy of it all belongs to everyone.
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There is a tradition of humanizing killers that is rarely afforded to Black women in the movies. For Truman Capote’s seminal non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood” from 1959, he befriended two death-row prisoners guilty of shooting dead a family in Kansas, and turned the resulting conversations into a journalistic doorstop of a book as compelling and detailed as any work of fiction. What made the book so haunting was Capote’s refusal to be daunted by the monstrousness of what the two men had done.
With “Saint Omer,” Diop shows an equally unflinching gaze, yet while Capote examined his subjects with a clinical detachment, the filmmaker distinguishes herself here by daring to empathize with her own. Not with her crime, but with the temporary insanity that afflicted a brilliant, marginalized Senegalese immigrant to Paris.
Diop introduces us to Rama through a dream in which she’s on beach at night, interrupted only when she is shaken awake by her boyfriend, who tells her that she was crying out in her sleep for her mother. It’s a full 15 minutes before the film’s focus switches to the oak-paneled courtroom where the bulk of “Saint Omer” will unfold. This opening section is comprised of hypnotic long takes of Rama moving through her life in Paris. Diop frames every shot with stately precision, holding on individual faces for long enough for us to become absorbed in the details of everything from a mother and child sleeping on the metro to the expressions of her own relatives when she arrives with her boyfriend for a family meal. The slow tempo of the image assembly has the effect of creating a quiet atmosphere that sometimes lags, until a sudden gut punch crashes into you like a tidal wave.
Rama and Laurence are both presented in visually striking ways. The camera loves Kayije Kagame, who has the effortless elegance to make even a pair of jeans resemble haute-couture. Her composure lends a welcome grace as the court case unfolds and the distressing details of the story surface. For her part, Malanga is very still. Costumed in a chestnut-coloured top that compliments the oak behind her, she is shot in that one spot for the entire film, talking in a manner that complicates her deed without ever trying to excuse it. The premise of “Saint Omer” is that we will hear her out.
Diop assembled the substance of the script from court transcripts, giving them to the cast to interpret with little other direction. She then shot the film in chronological order, in effect, causing her actors to relive the trial and to react naturally to the material. This pays off, as they have an increasingly shell-shocked look in their eyes which gives natural gravitas to the tragedy without anyone needing to directly express their sorrow.
A hefty tranche of the storytelling pivots around the short life of Baby Elise, who is resurrected with a tenderness made heavy by shared knowledge of her destiny. We learn that Baby Elise was born in secret, as Laurence was living as a recluse in the house of her much older, white partner. As he is called to the stand to recount the details of his life with Laurence, the dynamics of their union is conjured in all its subtly oppressive ways.
Although technically a work of fiction, “Saint Omer” is fiercely documentary-like in its concerns. The questions it conjures are not the anticipated emotional ones, rather they challenge the audience, asking: what expectations do we carry about a person like Laurence? Do we want to believe that she is evil? Crazy? Is she the product of a “foreign” culture? Is there someone else in her life that we could pin this on?
“Saint Omer ” doesn’t so much dodge easy answers as reframe the focal point, so that although the film recognizes the injustice done to Baby Elise in its somber atmosphere, the gaze ends up fixed on the nature of motherhood. A visceral closing speech on the subject evokes bonds that transcend life and death for the relationship between mothers and their children lives in our bodies. With her first fiction feature, Diop lets real material speak with an ancient sadness, with hope offered in the form of Rama who keeps moving, carrying a burden of knowledge into the birth of a brave new life.
“Saint Omer” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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