As it has been advertised, Saint Omer is a courtroom drama, but that’s not the initial impression that documentarian Alice Diop’s excellent feature debut wants to leave you with. Instead, we first see dark and dreamlike scenes of a mother carrying her baby out to sea, before bearing witness to an excruciatingly quiet family dinner between our protagonist and her own aging and emotionally distant mum. Saint Omer is, first and foremost, a study of mothers and daughters and the indefinable damage each can do to the other and the empathy required to fix, or at least understand, this damage.
Based on a true court case that Diop herself covered, Saint Omer takes place in the eponymous town in the mid-2010s where a bizarre and scandalous killing has taken place. A French-Senegalese woman from Paris is on trial for murdering her own 15-month-old baby on a nearby beach, leaving the infant to drown in the rising tides. This woman is Laurence Coly (Guslangie Malanda), who does not deny killing the child but has plead not guilty at her trial, blaming the intervention of sorcery from her family back in Senegal.
It’s an obviously salacious case, but one that resonates with Diop’s stand-in, the also French-Senegalese journalist Rama (Kayije Kagame), for other reasons, seeing flashes of herself and her own life within Laurence’s story, made all the more potent by Rama’s own pregnancy. As Rama sits in on proceedings we learn, in long unbroken takes, Laurence’s full circumstances, complicating and confusing our empathies and our judgements. Isolation, parental neglect, and a confluence of colonialism and racism all factor heavily into Diop’s story – even if we cannot relate directly to Laurence’s accusations of ‘sorcery’, we can see a woman driven to extremes by post-partum depression and a society that demands politesse but provides nothing back outside of desperation.
Diop’s careful, dense writing – captured by her static and beautifully composed frames – builds her characters out flawlessly, from Rama to Laurence to the authorities on the court and the witnesses they call, and she is repaid by her cast with a series of deeply authentic-feeling performances. Malanda’s role – full of eerie and wrenching monologues – is perhaps the showier of the two leads, and she’s exquisite here, but Kagame is also quietly superb in what is, amazingly, her first screen performance, Rama’s own guilts and traumas bubbling up throughout the trial in understated but affecting ways. A big speech given by Laurence’s lawyer late on in the film ends up as too on-the-nose, but that’s a rare misstep in Diop’s otherwise remarkable script.
Saint Omer is also made with impeccable craftsmanship, the visual poetry of Diop and DOP Claire Mathon’s compositions, colour schemes, and use of costuming impressing in pretty much every frame, helping what could be a rather slow chamber piece absolutely zip along (I found Saint Omer to feel a decent stretch shorter than its two-hour runtime). Though the camera rarely moves once we’re in the courtroom, each new day of the trial has the characters framed in slightly different ways, giving insight into their interior lives with an economy of expression that is very rare – Diop is able to wordlessly express so much here with just her filmic grammar.
Fittingly, Saint Omer casts a beguiling spell, one that is only broken on brief occasions. On a purely formal level, it’s an absolutely astounding fiction debut, displaying a mastery of the camera that many directors never really find and, even if it is ultimately more intellectual than it is affecting, Diop’s skill ensures that it is still unforgettable.