fri 19/04/2024

Saint Omer review - exile and erasure | reviews, news & interviews

Saint Omer review - exile and erasure

Saint Omer review - exile and erasure

A migrant child-killer's guilt proves elusive in Alice Diop's courtroom meditation

The trial: Guslagie Malanda as Laurence

Saint Omer is a psychological and sociological mystery, unpicking the enigma of Laurence (Guslagie Malanda), a French Senegalese woman who drowned her 15-month-old daughter in the ocean.

Director Alice Diop recognised her own Senegalese heritage and circumstance in the case of Fabienne Kabou, the murderer of a mixed-race child much like her own, who was racially pathologised in the French media. A prize-winning documentarian, Diop’s first feature adapts Kabou’s trial transcripts, and was filmed next-door to her courtroom in the depressed northern town of Saint-Omer.

We glimpse the Paris life of novelist and academic Rama (Kayije Kagame) with her Senegalese mother (weary) and sister (spiky), and her white musician boyfriend Luc (Xavier Maly, pictured below right with Kagame), a softly bear-like comfort. Then she takes the train to Saint-Omer to witness Laurence’s trial as Diop did Kabou’s, both envisioning artworks fuelled by Pasolini’s mythic Medea and filtered through Senegalese roots. Diop was jolted by Kabou’s icy, seeming psychopathy, warmed by Malanda in this fiction.

Kayije Kagame and Xavier Maly in Saint OmerDiop leaves so much unsaid for so long. She holds her camera on each character, framed by the court’s stately wooden panels, filling the screen with their presence. Laurence’s penetrating stare is wounded and accusing, with tremors of contained emotion. She turns towards the viewer at an angle, and nothing she says is quite straight. “I was not being ambiguous,” she tells the judge. “Some things we can’t be clear about. And if I was lying, I can’t know why.”

Slights and incomprehension chip at her reality: a white professor belittles her college study of Wittgenstein, so distant from “her own culture”, and reporters marvel at this articulate black student; her Senegalese dad stopped financing her when she dropped law to dream of being a world-changing philosophe. Sorcery vies with madness to explain her exile’s murderous end.

Rather than just accuse French society, Saint Omer finds forms of solidarity. The trial’s bench is female bar the male prosecutor, honestly trying to weigh justice for a woman beyond their grasp, Rama’s heart opens at Laurence’s complicit glance and her lawyer’s empathy releases Laurence’s damped down tears. The script’s main addition to the real trial is a lawyer’s talk of “chimeric cells” shared between pregnant mother and child, suggesting infinite, sometimes fraught chains of female connection.

Kayije Kagame and Odile Diatta in Saint OmerThough Saint Omer follows theatre’s trend for court testimonies, its speeches feel deeply cinematic. Diop’s camera is as fixed as CCTV but far more artful. There is a quality of still concentration and accumulated empathy, absorbing the characters’ complex humanity. Street and hotel interludes broaden Rama’s wintry season in France’s provinces, and she daydreams, watching dust float and swirl, and stares idly at the court’s stone grandeur, representing a country which only shakily accepts her.

Saint Omer is about the past haunting and bonding women, for good and ill, in a society which helped make Laurence a ghost to herself. It brings scars to the surface, to breathe and heal beneath her camera’s lingering, unjudgmental gaze.

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