Plays at Cinematheque until Feb. 2
From the murky waters of Saint-Omer, France, comes documentarian Alice Diop’s first fiction feature film. Saint Omer is based heavily upon the real-life court proceedings of Fabienne Kabou, who was tried in 2016 for the murder of her infant daughter, leaving her on the shore of Saint-Omer to be carried out by the tide.
A courtroom drama in the strictest sense, the film presents a perplexing case of infanticide that sits at the intersection of mysticism, mental illness and the human compulsion to rationalize it all.
Saint Omer demands rapt attention. Rama (Kayije Kagame), the film’s protagonist, is a young novelist and university lecturer who draws disquieting parallels between her own experiences and that of Laurence Coly (Gulslagie Malanda).
Laurence is a young Senegalese immigrant accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter in the vein of Euripides’ Medea, whose trial Rama hopes to turn into a novel. Essentially a film à clef, Rama is a stand-in for Diop, who attended Kabou’s murder trial and even uses the actual court transcripts for the screenplay.
The film is nothing if not consistently sombre and almost reverent in its restraint. The uncharacteristically muted production-company logos and heavy breathing that open the picture help establish a sense of foreboding pervading the rest of the film.
To Diop’s credit, this is a stark, measured direction. The clarity of the film is almost disarming, with documentary-like shooting of the court scenes that take up the bulk of the picture. No misplaced artistic ambition is allowed to obfuscate the gravity of the events depicted, even at the expense of dynamism.
Rama becomes more and more distressed as the case develops, which is fitting given the undeniable parallels between her own strained relationship with her mother and nascent pregnancy that threaten her journalistic objectivity. She hopes to spin the events as allegory.
The greater social implications are not lost on Diop. What this has to say about interracial relations in post-colonial France eludes me, but it’s easy to see the glass ceilings yet to be broken. The crotchety, old white prosecuting attorney’s leering eye and undisguised contempt for Laurence, her white partner’s absolution of his own culpability in the tragedy and honest-to-goodness casual racism when Laurence’s professor expresses confusion as to her interest in Wittgenstein instead of “someone closer to her own culture.”
What’s most compelling about the picture is the conflict viewers will likely feel at its closure.
Though no verdict is shown (Kabou was given 20 years), it feels beside the point. No judgment or justice can really quiet the unease instilled by the circumstances.
A masterful single shot toward the end of the film, a glance shared between Rama and Coly, can tear audiences’ convictions up to that point asunder. These are the facts of life, naked, like the Drummonds never had the balls to show. No, escapism be damned. This is as sobering as cinema gets.
Published in Volume 77, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 26, 2023)