Saint Omer

Reviewed by Stephen Pye

On Sunday evening Keswick Film club showed the critically acclaimed first feature film Saint Omer, by the French academic and director Alice Diop.

There's an accepted objectivity to raw filmed footage. It's one of the strongest pieces of evidence that can be presented in a legal case, and it is often easier to believe than human testimony. In 2016, Alice Diop, a French filmmaker, no stranger to raw footage in documentaries, attended the trial of Fabienne Kabou, charged with killing her infant daughter in 2013 by leaving her on a Normandy beach as the tide came in. Kabou is Senagalese and her defence for filicide is that she has been manipulated by sorcery. Diop who in turn has Senagalese parents, and also has two degrees from the Sorbonne, was brought to the point of obsession by the case.

In Saint Omer — largely filmed as raw film footage, the techniques of documentary applied to fiction —Diop is deeply conscious of her own subjectivity, which in turn becomes a way in for the audience. Her fictional stand-in, Rama, deftly played by Kayije Kagame, is a writer whose immediate thought is that the case of a mother murdering her 15-month-old daughter would suit a modern retelling of the Ancient Greek tragedy Medea by Euripedes. We see Rama pondering over the text, watching Maria Callas play Medea in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1969 film adaptation, trying to figure out how she might connect to it through her own complicated feelings around motherhood thrown up by the trial. Slowly her thesis unravels as she watches the accused under cross-examination.

That is where the power of Saint Omer lies. We watch and listen to Guslagie Malanga delivering an impeccably nuanced performance as the convicted Laurence Coly, and her defence barrister, played by Aurélia Petit. Cinematographer Claire Mathon, who shot Celine Sciamma's Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, holds the frame uncomfortably close ,and in so doing , makes the audience feel intimately involved. These filmic dimensions are new to Diop's cinema, but they raise philosophical questions, essentially framing the audience as Laurence's jury. Saint Omer tackles the unconscious biases surrounding cultural difference directly in a supposedly objective legal system.

Many questions remain as the film moves to its denouement, accompanied by the beautiful strains of Nina Simone's rendering of "Little Girl Blue". It is a viscerally disturbing film, deserving of its many plaudits, and continues to haunt me the day after.