“Saint Omer”

This film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival

Directed by documentarian Alice Diop, “Saint Omer” has a dry, observational style that gives her project a non-fiction feel. She falls back on classic documentary techniques in her filmmaking, including a tendency to let her camera linger on her actors for extended periods of time and allowing characters to appear as though they are addressing the audience as if we were members of the jury.

This is a dialogue-heavy film with plenty of long pauses that are frustrating, and her storytelling is steady and deliberate. As the narrative progresses, the film begins to feel unbearably claustrophobic and agitating, but Diop’s artistic choices adequately express the complex ideas of her story.

Rama (Kayije Kagame) is a pregnant novelist who is working on a book that updates the classic tale of Medea, a story in Greek mythology that explores the power of emotion to make people do things they would normally not do. She is observing the heart-rending trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a Senegalese woman accused of murdering her infant daughter after abandoning her on a beach in France and letting her get swept out to sea. The evidence against her is plentiful, yet Laurence maintains her innocence, blaming the act of infanticide on witchcraft.

Watching the drama unfold in the courtroom and learning more about Laurence’s history of living as an outsider and immigrant, Rama is triggered by her own traumas that originate from a rocky relationship with her family, personal encounters with racism, and the damaging emotional manipulation she’s experienced in the past. She begins to let her fears of motherhood take control, which has devastating consequences on her mental state.

Diop and her co-writers Amrita David and Marie N’Diaye do not forgo exposing the troubling, inexcusable, continued cycle of violence towards black women that permeates certain segments of French society. This film may have a stoic demeanor that feels too unhurried and a little boring, but the trio of writers throws a forceful, final blow of social commentary that makes the talky, draggy courtroom scenes worth it.

Entertainment-wise, “Saint Omer” may not be the most enjoyable film to watch if you fall outside the realm of a very specific audience, but it is a sophisticated, gripping drama that features strong performances and fully (and forcefully) asserts its social critique.

By: Louisa Moore

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