Director: Alice Diop | Script: Amrita David, Alice Diop | Cast: Kayije Kagame (branch), Guslagie Malanda (Laurence Coly), Valerie Dréville (right) and | Time to play: 122 minutes | Year: 2022
In 2013, a French-Senegalese woman leaves her 15-month-old daughter behind on the shoreline of a French seaside resort, causing her to drown. In the courtroom of the city of Saint-Omer, Fabienne Kabou declares that she was under the influence of witchcraft, to which her lawyer describes her as “intelligent, but irrational”. In Saint Omer, a dramatized reconstruction of the court hearing, that verdict certainly doesn’t cover the meaning of Kabou’s tragic story. As a viewer, you have a choice: do you take your place in the judge’s chair or remain a cautious and empathetic listener?
One of the attendees is Rama, a writer and professor who, as a relative stranger, comes to the audience especially to hear the story of Laurence Coly (name has been changed for the occasion). Director Alice Diop turns the camera several times to Rama’s concerned face during the defense. His body language reveals deep involvement, but also a bit of fear and despair.
Rama is four months pregnant and, like Laurence, has a complex and strained relationship with her mother. At the same time, Diop plays with the idea that even Rama will probably never be able to fully understand Laurence’s act. Laurence’s violent history, with traces of abandonment, neglect and oppression, evokes empathy, but when she finally has to explain why she killed her son, she can’t think of a definitive “why.” How does she deal with the mixed feelings that such testimony evokes?
The moral dilemma of Saint Omer reminiscent of the climax of the German film classic METER. We often see murder as the worst crime that can be committed, but how strong are our charges if the perpetrator is not without scruples and can even elicit our sympathy? Diop does not force his audience to take sides for or against the law and the woman on trial. She gives us every opportunity to think and feel for ourselves. Rama’s worried look only holds an extra mirror.
If Rama is deeply moved by the broken soul of Laurence’s mother, maybe we are too, and understand that sometimes admitting guilt doesn’t tell half the story. Although it must be said that it is difficult to get a full picture of Luc Dumontet through the eyes of Laurence, the man who seems to have painfully abandoned her and her daughter. On the other hand, it is easier to recognize the shortcomings of the French legal system, which must clean up the debris of the unequal and disadvantaged social relations that it itself promotes, especially when it comes to the situation of immigrant workers.
This imbalance is a consequence of the ultimately respectable fact that the film has a clearly framed perspective: as in his documentary work, Diop highlights the experiences of marginalized individuals who, seen from an ex-colonial perspective, have yet to relate to a dominant Frenchman. ‘mother culture’. The perception gap is not only in origin and/or migratory background, but also in skin color and gender.
Enter thinking and feeling Saint Omer Well together. Seemingly careless, Diop weaves together the sociopolitical fault lines she touches with the personal stories of Rama and Laurence. Along with his Franco-Senegalese namesake Mati Diop (Atlantic), Leonor Serralles a little brother (in theaters in June) and the legacy of Claire Denis, broadens and enriches the French (and international) film scene.