Directed by Alice Diop
With Kayije Kagame (Rama), Guslagie Malanda (Laurence Coly), Valérie Dréville (the court’s presiding judge), Aurélia Petit (the defendant’s lawyer), Robert Cantarella (the chief prosecutor), Xavier Maly (Luc Dumontet), Salimata Kamate (Dialla), Adama Diallo Tomba (Rama’s mother)
In a way, this is the strictest courtroom drama possible: the plot is entirely developed within the courtroom and never physically strays away, relentlessly focusing on the place and the people involved. The crime and the characters are only presented through the proceedings but are never shot apart: there are no inaugural, shocking sequence, no flashbacks, no set pieces. Everything plays out in the words, the behaviors, the gazes, the rules, to the greatest extent and in the most earnest manner, the relation of the trial, for instance, starting, in a rare move in a French film from the genre, by the process of selecting a jury.
The shot compositions strikingly define each new part of the drama, slowly zeroing in on the defendant as the trial goes forward: first, a rather large medium shot on Laurence Coly as she is interrogated by the court’s presiding judge, then a narrower medium shot as witnesses start to testify, and eventually powerful closeups – and not just on Laurence Coly but also the defendant’s lawyer delivering her final plea to the jury. The mise en scène is remarkably focused and minimalist but the light cast from the windows opposite the place where the defendant stands, as the weather varies between overcast and sunny, artfully emphasizes the drama taking place, precisely the riddle that Laurence Coly’s attitude and discourse create.
While every other character in the courtroom plays their roles rather predictably, from the severe and committed lawyer to the aggressive and righteous chief prosecutor to the embarrassed witness, especially Laurence Coly’s former partner Luc Dumontet, the defendant is rather upsetting the proceedings and the expectations. When asked why she killed her daughter, she quietly answer she hopes the trial would help her get the answer, a most astonishing statement from someone who readily acknowledges she laid her baby daughter on a beach so that the sea could take her away and at the same time cannot plead guilty. And indeed, the trial becomes a rather tortuous and befuddling attempt to reconstruct the life an African migrant spent in France, her fraught, disastrous relations with other people, starting with her mother and including her partner who sheltered her, and her confusing and depressing inability to observe the rules and common sense leading to a secretive, isolated life and the corresponding lack of revenues, social insurance, and diplomas even as she claims to be studying a PhD in philosophy. Her language skills are impressive, incredibly articulate, often compelling and moving, although her reasoning remains unsatisfactory – the helpless face of the presiding judge is telling, and tellingly used as a motif. There is a sincerity and a despair hard to discount – watch the lawyer and the jurors – even if there is the temptation to dismiss the discourse and the amazingly stolid, quiet attitude of the speaker, as mere theatrics, as the chief prosecutor bemoans.
And yet this is not the usual courtroom drama. Technically, it ends nowhere: after the lawyer’s plea the editing drops off this plot entirely – not only the chief prosecutor’s final statement is not shot but no verdict is communicated. Whatever happens to Laurence Coly remains unknown.
But then her first day in court has never been the film’s starting point. Her grim tale of infanticide has been brought up through another woman’s story and the point of the film is not just to explore a rather stunning and quite riveting case of a young woman who wasted her life, suffered a lot, killed senselessly, but how this case impacts, moves, challenges another woman. The arguably most important shot in the film does occur during the trial but highlights disturbing, fundamental bond between the event and the witness to the event: it is when Laurence Coly at long last gets her attention caught by the endless, engrossed stare that another bright, young lady from African descent has been casting all along the trial and then responds to this attention by a wink – which just rushes an uncontrollable well of emotions in Rama’s mind.
Rama’s deep troubles and feelings frame the film: it starts with a nightmare of hers and ends with a most tender gesture of familial love. From the start, a lecture in a university it is plain she is a brilliant intellectual, and later it appears her talent extents to the writing of novels – and if she goes to Saint Omer, it is with the goal of writing a book on the Laurence Coly case. Yet malaise pervades a family reunion presided over by her mother, who is now a widow: Rama does not feel at ease, clearly avoids telling things about her life even as her partner is prone to be garrulous, refuses to pay a service to her mother.
And as Laurence Coly remembers her life, as she tries to express what she felt and to name facts the most correct and relevant way in her view, risking to cause disbelief and dismay when she starts talking about witchcraft, Rama struggles to be an impartial reporter and not to let emotions overwhelm her. She fails: the images are blunt and hard to dismiss. The flashbacks and the side pieces expected for the story of Laurence Coly are slowly and relentlessly used for the story of Rama, her difficult life with a stern mother who has emigrated to get money and who had seemingly not find the happiness and opportunity she hoped in her family life. As Laurence Coly and the court try to gather what motherhood did mean to the defendant, Rama feels forced to wonder what significance her own pregnancy has to her, in the context of that awkward relationship with her mother (could she be one day as bitter?). As Laurence Coly keeps speaking up and groping her way through her own confusion and lies, as insensitive remarks about her origins and her beliefs come up, sometimes in the most shocking way, Rama must also cope with the wider issues of herself as a Black woman who happens to be in France now.
Starting in the shadow of Marguerite Duras and her scenario and book “Hiroshima mon amour”, the film would later make another, bolder quotation, featuring shots from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film “Medea”. If in the first case it was important to Rama to show her students in literature how a historical tragedy can be processed by a great novelist to deliver a deeply poetic and illuminating first-person text, and in retrospect this sounds like broadcasting an agenda, “Saint Omer” after all purporting to use a real story that made the headlines in 2013 to make a bold, eye-opening fiction, in the second case, firmly anchored in the creative process of Rama, it is a radical attempt through intertextuality to inject a mythological dimension. When he shot the old Greek tale, Pasolini was keen to wrap it in textures and sounds evoking many cultures past and present, attempting through the technology of cinema to make it more universal than ever. And “Saint Omer” wants to follow suit, to invite the audience while dealing with horrible facts and an unsettling personality to view them on broader terms. Actually, the film affirms this proposition with the admirable final plea of the defendant’s lawyer relying on science as well as compassion to remind the jury and the audience of the mystery of motherhood, that special, physically challenging, life-changing bond between mothers and children, even if death comes.
But it is not with those high-minded thoughts that the film ends: it is with a fresh image of intimacy and tenderness, coming back to the life of Rama months after the trial, showing how the meeting with this surprising, toxic incarnation of Medea – after all, the African and the Greek share the same kind of crime and the same connection to magical forces possibly beyond our gaze, and definitely our gaze of modern Westerners – has changed her. And that proves to be the most beautiful and comforting image of simple and moving gesture, clasping hands, breathing at the same time, being quiet. Rama, at long last, has found a way to embrace motherhood, the legacy it both creates and imposes, the joy and the fear it carries. From the horror comes peace and acceptance. Could it be more beautiful?
This is the debut feature in fiction of a renowned document director. The impressive quality of the lines and the screenplay, the intelligence in shooting and editing, the direction of actors whose performances not only ring true but are just awesome and mesmerizing (especially Guslagie Malanda) are hard to forget: they point to confident and brilliant skills that suggest an even bigger and more fruitful career is in the offing. Alice Diop has delivered a truly subtle and honest, ambitious and elegant fictional film.