Producers: Toufik Ayadi and Christophe Barral Director: Alice Diop Screenplay: Alice Diop, Amrita David and Marie NDiaye Cast: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Valérie Dréville, Aurélia Petit, Xavier Maly, Robert Canterella, Salimata Kamate, Thomas de Pourquery, Charlotte Clamens and Adama Diallo Tamba Distributor: Neon
A 2015 trial that became a tabloid sensation in France—of Fabienne Kabou, a well-educated student from Senegal who nonetheless suggested that sorcery might have impelled her actions in the death of her infant daughter—is treated with an austerity that’s the very opposite of sensationalism in Alice Diop’s provocative semi-fictionalization. Diop, a documentarian who is herself an immigrant from Senegal, attended Kabou’s trial in Saint-Omer, and while Rama (Kayije Kagame), the writer who observes the judicial proceeding against Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) in the film is not her, she nonetheless acts as the director’s surrogate, and to a certain extent ours.
In a brief prologue, Cody is shown depositing Elise on a beach along the Channel in northern France, in the expectation that the tide will come in and drown the child. Rama, a professor of literature and novelist working on a modern version of the Medea legend, decides to attend the trial. Similarities quickly emerge between the two. Rama’s partner Adrian (Thomas de Pourquery) is a white Frenchman; the father of Coly’s daughter was Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly), a much older local artist with whom she lived for years. Both women have had strained relations with their mothers—we see as much in flashbacks to Rama’s dynamic with her mother (Adama Diallo Tamba), and observe the attitude of Coly’s mother Odile (Salimata Kamate) directly, since she’s prominent in the courtroom and befriends Rama on walks back to their hotels. Rama is also pregnant, which increases her empathy with Coly, which grows more pronounced as the days pass.
But except back in her room, where she expresses her emotions as thoughts and memories assail her, Rama retains a cool, collected posture as the trial proceeds. The details of the case emerge through testimony delivered by witnesses under questioning from the judge (Valérie Dréville), an active participant in the French judicial system based on Roman law, and the who barristers, one for the defense (Aurélia Petit) and the other for the prosecution (Robert Canterella), who are often perplexed, even annoyed, by the unemotional directness of Coly’s responses and her seeming inability to explain her actions (she even expresses the hope that the trial will explain them to her). Yet the self-serving remarks of Dumontet, a craven character who tries to portray himself in a good light without much success, and of one of Coly’s professors (Charlotte Clamens), who expresses surprise that Coly, with her background, should have chosen Wittgenstein as a thesis subject, suggest a barely suppressed sense of superiority and condescension with racial and cultural overtones.
“Saint Omer” is hardly a typical, Hollywood-style courtroom drama, as one might intuit from the mention of Wittgenstein, otherwise unexplained, and of Coly’s offhanded remark that she is a Cartesian, also without further elaboration. And by the close the crime of which Coly is accused is nearly forgotten, replaced by an overriding concern for the victimization of immigrant women, and indeed of all women, that the defense barrister emphasizes in her summation, pointedly presented directly to the camera, a tactic through which we are all challenged to reach a judgment ourselves.
That impassioned monologue looks back to the start of the film, the lecture delivered by Rama to her class before she travels to Saint-Omer. Her topic was Marguerite Duras’ screenplay for “Hiroshima, mon amour,” accompanied by news footage of women believed to have consorted with Nazi soldiers during the occupation shaved and paraded through the streets as a means of public shaming. The juxtaposition might seem to some a bit of a stretch, but it certainly makes Diop’s point.
Diop even withholds the usual satisfaction of hearing a verdict announced. Rather this is a film that has been constructed to put viewers in the same position in which Diop found herself in 2015—coming to terms with what might have led a mother to commit an inexplicable act. Some will undoubtedly find this frustrating, but it’s an audacious artistic choice, and overall one successfully played out.
The film is expertly made. Diop’s calm, reflective style, which treats silences and pauses with as much, if not more, importance as the monologues, gives ample opportunity to the cast to make the characters breathe despite their general reticence and control. Kagame and Malanda are both quietly compelling, their glances toward one another carrying unspoken power, and the entire supporting cast contribute to the atmosphere of complexity and hidden undercurrents, with Maly particularly unsettling as a weak, duplicitous man straining nervously to justify his crass conduct. Shot largely in the locations where events unfolded—including the courtroom—the film has air of somehow elevated authenticity, accentuated by Anna Le Mouel’s unadorned production design and Claire Mathon’s serene, unobtrusive cinematography; the measured editing by Amrita David complements Diop’s ruminative approach.
A fact-based courtroom drama that upends the genre’s usual histrionics, Diop’s film is artistically inspired as well as inspired by an unspeakable act.