Monday 10 April 2023

Saint Omer (Alice Diop, 2022)

With films such as Danton's Death, On Call and We, Alice Diop has carved out a formidable reputation as a documentary filmmaker, and with Saint Omer she takes her first step into narrative cinema.  Yet to call Saint Omer a work of fiction is something of a stretch, as the film reconstructs the trial of Fabienne Kabou, who in November 2013 left her baby daughter to drown on a beach in northern France.  Intrigued by the case, and with an eye on making a film about the proceedings, Diop herself attended Kabou's 2016 trial, with the experience leading to a feature that is a very different work from the essay film one might have expected from the director.  Alice Diop's presence at the actual court sessions further blurs the boundary between verity and fabrication, and as a result Saint Omer occupies an unusual space, one that's somewhere between Diop's previous work and a more orthodox ripped-from-the-headlines drama.

Saint Omer opens with novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame) presenting a lecture on Marguerite Duras, in which an excerpt of Alain Resnais' Duras-scripted Hiroshima Mon Amour is used to help illustrate the point being made; Hiroshima was the feature debut of Resnais, who—like Diop—moved into fiction film after many years of directing documentaries.  Explicitly referencing Resnais' immense work is a bold stroke by Diop, one that could easily backfire if the audience's attention is distracted by the clip of a film widely regarded as a classic of 20th-century cinema.  But to its credit, Saint Omer survives this risky move and proceeds to follow Rama as she travels to the town of the title to observe the infanticide trial; the writer—who has already identified strong parallels between the case and Euripides' play Medea—plans to use what she witnesses in the court as the basis for a novel.  Rama is clearly a stand-in for Diop, and for the purposes of the film the accused, played by Guslagie Malanga, goes by the name of Laurence Coly.    

The extremely intelligent, well-educated Coly does not deny leaving her 15-month-old baby to the mercy of a rising tide in wintry Berck-sur-Mer, but she stops short of accepting full responsibility for the crime, instead insisting that witchcraft was the driving force behind the murder.  As the judge (Valérie Dréville, terrific) examines the defendant, Coly responds in a calm, measured tone, but there's something about the delivery of her answers that makes her seem less than credible; are those in the court—and by extension the audience—really expected to believe that this highly articulate academic is convinced that she was placed under a curse?  As the trial progresses, Rama becomes acquainted with Coly's mother Odile (Salimata Kamate), a patient, kind woman, albeit one who appears resigned as far as her daughter's fate is concerned.  In one almost surreal scene, Odile, in a display akin to that of a proud parent, visits a newsagents to purchase a copy of each paper covering the trial

While Rama may have made the connection between Coly and Medea, the young novelist is clearly rattled by some similarities between herself and the woman in the dock: both are black women made pregnant by white men—although Rama's caring, devoted partner Adrien (Thomas de Pourquery) stands in stark contrast to Coly's weaselly ex-lover Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly), whose testimony appears designed to achieve little beyond extricating the baby's father from this tragic case.  All of this is presented in a manner that recalls another film centring on a real-life trial in northern France: Bruno Dumont's Joan of Arc.  As with Dumont's film, Saint Omer features a series of long, static takes that will test the patience of many a viewer, but once you tune into the film's highly unusual rhythm it becomes a haunting, hypnotic spectacle.  It takes a good while for the full effect of Saint Omer to sink in, and I suspect that this daring, exacting film will reward multiple viewings.

Darren Arnold

Images: Wild Bunch

Monday 3 April 2023

EO (Jerzy Skolimowski, 2022)

In the near 60 years since Jerzy Skolimowski's first feature Rysopis, the veteran director has had a rather spotty career, with his most interesting work appearing in the 1970s, when he turned out the likes of Deep End, The Shout and King, Queen, Knave.  In 2015, Skolimowski directed the largely unmemorable 11 Minutes, which many at the time may have assumed to be the filmmaker's swansong; yet seven years later, Skolimowski—who turns 85 next month—returned with the remarkable EO, which arguably stands as his finest film.  EO—whose title is an approximation of the sound made by a donkey—is a quasi-remake of Robert Bresson's 1966 classic Au hasard Balthazar, a work widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.  Such was the universality of Bresson's outstanding film that Jean-Luc Godard famously declared it to be "the world in an hour and a half"; with this in mind, a new take on Au hasard Balthazar sounds like a fool's errand—and it almost certainly would be were the film in the vein of Gus Van Sant's ill-fated stab at Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

Fortunately, Skolimowski's film is a highly unorthodox remake, one that shares little with its nominal inspiration bar the central character; in these senses, it's cut from the same cloth as Werner Herzog's riotous riff on Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant.  EO begins with the donkey of the title performing as part of a circus act in which he stars alongside the caring Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), who has built a deep bond with EO.  It isn't long before animal rights protesters secure the release of EO, with the distraught Kasandra watching on helplessly as her beloved donkey is bundled off in a trailer.  From this point on, EO embarks on an odyssey in which he experiences a wide spectrum of human behaviour, with his fraught, perilous journey across Europe recalling that of the main character in Václav Marhoul's The Painted Bird; as with Marhoul's film, EO is an episodic affair, one that sees its protagonist stumble from one situation to another, with every encounter beginning as an unknown quantity in which he must wait to see if he's in the presence of friend or foe.  Skolimowski, like Marhoul, appears to take the worldview that cruelty is much easier to find than kindness.   

Which is not to say that the film is all doom and gloom: Skolimowski punctuates this stressful ride with moments of real humour, and EO's inscrutable features are used to good effect in this regard.  In EO, Skolimowski taps into the humble, immutable nature of donkeys—as Bresson did in Au hasard Balthazar—but he also infuses EO with a layer of mischief that sets him apart from the title character of Bresson's masterpiece, as does his general demeanour: more everyman, less Christ-like.  Or is this simply what we project onto EO (or Balthazar, for that matter), who over the course of the film is played by six different donkeys?  Smokilowski's film may centre on an animal, but it reveals a great deal about humans—be they on the screen or in the audience—and it is very surprising that this incredibly insightful work didn't win the Ecumenical Prize at Cannes (although it did leave the festival with a well-deserved Jury Prize).

As EO makes his way across the continent, the various environments he finds himself in are often as baffling to the viewer as they are to the endearing donkey.  Whether watching a hotly contested football match or visiting the palatial home of a haughty countess (a late, gasp-inducing cameo from Isabelle Huppert), EO approaches matters with an indifference that stands in sharp contrast to the range of human emotions on display.  While EO seems to be very accepting of life and all its hardships, Skolimowski inserts some dazzling sequences which suggest that EO is capable of dreaming—which might well be the case.  If Charlotte Wells' equally heartbreaking Aftersun highlights the silent gap that separates children from their parents, EO prompts us to ponder the mysterious relationship between humans and animals; we think we know all about them, but how do they perceive us?  This formally daring film makes for a moving, immersive experience, one that lingers in the mind long after the end credits have rolled.

Darren Arnold