TIFF 2022: Saint Omer, by David Bax
Don’t let me get away with pretending I’m enough of an international film historian to understand why the nation of Senegal and its filmmakers have produced so much great work, from Mandabi to Touki Bouki to Hyènes to a recent resurgence with the likes of Mati Diop‘s masterful Atlantics. But now we have Saint Omer, from Alice Diop (no relation), a French film from a French filmmaker that takes place entirely in France but has an inseverable relationship to Senegal nevertheless.
Saint Omer is inspired by a true story, not just of the court case at its center, in which a Senegalese-French woman is on trial for the murder of her own young child, but also of Diop’s own obsession with the case as another Senegalese-French woman with complicated thoughts on motherhood. Here Kayije Kagame plays Rama (Diop’s surrogate), a pregnant literature professor, and Guslagie Malanga plays Laurence, the woman on trial in the town of Saint-Omer, where Rama moves into a hotel in order to attend the daily proceedings. So, technically, Saint Omer is a courtroom drama. But unlike the puffed up theatrics employed by so many of those, Diop sticks to the reality of such an event. Her background as a documentarian shows in her ability to inspire our interest in the established legal process.
So, yes, that means that Saint Omer moves at an unhurried pace. But to call it slow would be an insult to the stakes of the trial and preceding crime as well as to the intelligence of the film’s potential audience. If you need some whiz-bang to be as riveted by the detailed questions and answers about a woman killing her own daughter as Rama is, that’s on you and this movie was never going to be your thing anyway.
For the rest of us, it’s hard to imagine anything more engrossing. There are occasional flourishes, like the moderate use of a breathy, experimental score and scenes from Pasolini‘s Medea shown in full. But, most of the time, Diop leaves us with nothing more than room tone and incidental sound to complement the human voices and the stories (because that’s what a testimony essentially is) that elegantly string the film together from scene to scene.
It would be dishonest for Rama, Diop or us as the audience to deny the voyeuristic, tabloid sensationalism that draws us to something like a real life infanticide trial, especially one that eventually invokes eye-grabbing topics like sorcery and curses. But beyond the what lies the why. Not just why Laurence did what she did but why we want to know so bad. Or is that even it? Is a conclusion and explanation the reason Rama keeps watching or is it the minute revelations folded into the expressions and turns of phrase of the defendants, witnesses and judges? We can decide for ourself the extent of Laurence’s culpability but Diop is more interested in Rama. After all, as a viewer whose interpretation of what she sees is as much about her as about the figures in the drama, she’s as much our surrogate as Diop’s.