The best moments of Alice Diop’s narrative feature debut, Saint Omer, come when her avatar, Rama (Kayije Kagame) is forced to reconcile the parallels in her own life with that of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), who’s fighting for her life in a court of law. Heavily based on the real-life trial of Fabienne Kabou, which Diop herself attended, the one-sided, vicarious connection that Rama has to Coly must be translatable to the audience, especially those who may not be aware of the film’s inspiration. Because of this, Kagame and Malanda deliver deeply intimate performances in a story that is even more deeply personal to Diop not just as a filmmaker, but as a woman.
In the film, Rama is a literature professor in Paris who has achieved notoriety from her published novels and work in academia. She takes a leave of absence to travel to the community of Saint-Omer (the only official relevance the title has to the plot) to witness Coly’s trial. The young Senegalese immigrant student is accused of first degree murder, having killed her infant daughter by leaving her on a beach in hopes of her being swept out to sea by the tide, and Rama wishes to turn the story into a new novel, a modern retelling of the Medea myth.
As the daughter of immigrants, as a black woman in Europe, and as someone who has a contentious relationship with her mother, Rama sees in Coly a version of herself where tragedy won out over all other influences, and in the scenes where — largely in private — she has to process what this could mean for her, the film is among the year’s best. There is a genuine curiosity and fear for Rama as she watches the proceedings unfold, wondering if there is some unseen hand of fate that will still doom her by circumstance rather than by her own actions, and it’s fascinating to see how Diop gives the viewer subtle hints along the way to make Rama’s situation as clear as possible without the need for obvious exposition.
There’s also a very deliberate touch in how the trial itself is presented. Everything is taken very slowly and carefully, with a large emphasis placed on Coly herself in the defense stand. As lawyers and witnesses argue and testify, the camera almost always stays focused on Coly, at least to start. When her ex-lover and the father or her baby (Xavier Maly) begins his account, we hear his voice, but see only Coly’s face for the first several seconds. This is also the case for the two attorneys (Aurélia Petit and Robert Canterella), the presiding judge (Valérie Dréville), and every other witness save for Coly’s mother (Salimata Kamate), who being a major thread of this tapestry, does get to take visual precedence over her daughter as an illustration of how controlling she is, and how that might have related to Coly’s motivations.
And it is a testament to Malanda’s performance how well she’s able to keep things together given how long the camera remains fixed on her. During questioning, there are significant chunks where we only see her speaking and responding to questions, while the person asking them remains firmly off screen. She remains calm throughout, challenging the assertions of the prosecution, but never losing her temper. In her opening statement, where she outright confesses to killing her child, she makes it clear that in pleading not guilty, she’s saying that she’s not responsible for her actions, and wishes for the trial itself to give her clarity on why she committed infanticide. As if standing as a counterargument to the idea of the hysterical woman archetype, she only shows emotion twice. Once during her barrister’s closing argument, where she breaks down and cries, the weight of the proceedings finally taking their toll, and once after a somewhat curt exchange with the prosecutor, where, feeling she’s bested his accusations, turns her head every so briefly to make eye contact with Rama and crack a smile. That’s it. Very well done, indeed.
Where things come up a bit short for me are in those areas where pretentiousness overrules basic story logic. For one, the trial itself is something of a sham for the sake of drama. The prosecutor is overly aggressive, taking every opportunity to call Coly a liar and a whore even when doing so has no relevance to whatever line of questioning is going on. While I’m sure there are lawyers who really are that big of assholes, here it’s only used as a means for a man to try to assert dominance over a female, and for the script to create whatever plot beats and reveals it wants to in order to justify Coly killing her baby. There’s a scene where the defense lawyer questions the child’s father, telling him that because her robes are black (the barristers wear black robes while the adjudicators wear red), she’s not there to judge him… before lobbying judgment after judgment at him, calling him a coward and declaring that he’s really responsible for the baby’s death because he didn’t love Laurence enough. The idea of sorcery is used as a potential defense, even though it’s absurd on its face, and literally no one could testify to it being a real thing. Even the closing argument, an impassioned plea from the defense attorney that talks about the curse of being a woman while cutting to every Double-X chromosome in the room (including the judge) with all the subtlety of a chainsaw, ends with the lawyer saying that Coly should be acquitted because the court-appointed psychologist deemed her mentally unfit to stand trial. THEN WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE EVEN DOING HERE?!?!?!?!?!
Literally, a tossed off line in the closing scenes demonstrates that the trial shouldn’t have even happened, which renders everything we’ve just witnessed as rhetorical nonsense, even though the whole trial was prefaced as a search for truth and understanding. It’s even worse as we end things on an annoyingly ambiguous note because modern French filmmakers seem to be allergic to the concept of a conclusion. There are some key conceits in the film that are explicitly stated, including the aforementioned link between Rama and Coly that was initially left properly and artistically open to interpretation, but things that actually have weight on the outcome are just abandoned for no reason. You could argue that the trial itself didn’t matter, given the more literary themes at work, and I’d largely agree, but then I’d also ask why we then had to endure scenes like jury selection, where for several minutes Rama sits in the courtroom as a half dozen names are drawn out of a lottery, stated for the record along with ages, occupations, and residencies, before the opposing counsels get to either allow or dismiss them. If the trial wasn’t important, then we could have just cut this scene and lost nothing. Instead, it was kept in, padding the runtime unnecessarily, only for the actual courtroom portion of the “courtroom drama” to be rendered moot.
But more importantly, when you go to such painstaking lengths to make us care about the characters, you have to resolve them. Both Rama and Laurence are compelling, and they become that way because of the attention that Diop rightfully pays them throughout. But then you have to give us an ending that satisfies their stories. I don’t mean that it has to be happy, pleasing, or even entertaining. When I say “satisfy,” I mean that we’re fulfilling an elementary story requirement. Tell us what happens, whether we like it or not. Sometimes things can be left open for thematic purposes, when it’s consistent with everything that’s led up to it. But in a story like this, where you firmly establish two lead characters and what the consequences are for given results, you need to provide said results, or the story feels incomplete. And there was no need for this story to be left incomplete.
These decisions don’t doom the film, but they do knock the grade down by a few notches. This could have been one of the best international entries of the year, and given France a mortal lock on a category they’ve dominated (along with Italy) since its inception. Alice Diop’s cinematic eye is expert, and the two lead performances are absolutely stellar. But the characterization of everyone else — particularly the men — is heavy-handed and preachy at best, all in service of a story that refuses to give the viewer a proper conclusion, which is beyond frustrating. Every time someone tries this tactic, they seem to think that it means they’re saying something profound or insightful. Instead, it always comes off as them turning their nose up at the audience, telling us that they know they could have done the bare minimum to tell a competent story, but because they’re better than us, they didn’t feel it necessary. It takes away from their chance to talk down to us.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How many International Feature entries have you seen? Should lawyers in America wear robes like they do in Europe? Let me know!