Saint Omer

06/02/23

Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

To describe Saint Omer as a courtroom drama would be doing it an immense disservice. Yes, the action does take place in a courtroom in the titular French town – and yes, the story is inspired by real-life events, namely the trial of Fabienne Kabou, accused of the infanticide of her young daughter in 2016. But Alice Diop’s slow-burn feature is about so much more than what meets the eye.

In this version of the tale, the accused is Senegalese Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), whose only defence for leaving her daughter on a beach to die is that witchcraft impelled her to do it.’ The court’s Président (Valérie Petit) is understandably mystified and exasperated by the woman’s apparent conviction that, having admitted to the murder, she is perfectly justified in submitting a plea of not guilty.

Successful author, Rama (Kayije Kagame), also Senegalese, feels impelled to attend the trial. She’s pregnant herself and is in the process of writing a new book based around the myth of Medea, and believes that elements of the story are echoed in Coly’s situation. Rama also meets up with Coly’s manipulative mother, Odile (Salimata Kamate), who exerts a quiet sense of control, while utterly refusing to discuss her daughter’s claims of sorcery. As the trial progresses, Rama feels herself increasingly drawn to Coly’s plight.

Slow-paced and deeply compelling, Saint Omer feels like a meditation on the unfair demands of womanhood – that, purely because of their biology, women are forever cast as unremittingly evil whenever they are unable to fulfil the demands that motherhood places upon them. Everything builds to an impassioned address from defence lawyer, Maître Vaudenay (Ayrélia Petit), her remarks addressed direct to camera, so there can be no doubt of their intention.

It’s interesting to note how little cinematic artifice is on display here – hardly any of the cuts, dissolves and pans we associate with a movie are utilised, while characters remain curiously inert throughout proceedings. Coly is even dressed in clothes that virtually blend with the wood panelled background of the courtroom. She is, it seems, already virtually invisible. An extract from Pier Paolo Passolini’s film Medea (1969) seems to have been included merely to accentuate the gulf between Rama’s original notion and the stark reality of Coly’s situation.

And, unlike any other courtroom drama I’ve seen, there’s no interest in recording the outcome of the trial, and this seems entirely appropriate. Saint Omer is much more interested in what is left unsaid. It’s an undeniably powerful and illuminating film, expertly told.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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