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