Saint Omer haunts from its first image. A woman holding a baby walks on the beach towards the sea while the loud waves overwhelm the soundtrack. In another place, another woman wakes up from a nightmare calling for her mother. In two precise scenes, director Alice Diop establishes the stakes of her story—France’s selection for the Oscars’ International Feature category—with clarity and confidence.
Soon we are launched deep into the stories of these women. First, we meet Rama (Kayije Kagame), a novelist and academic, grappling with her complex relationship with her depressive mother. She’s also attending the trial of a woman, Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), accused of killing her infant daughter by abandoning her on a beach in the small town of Saint-Omer in Northern France. Diop, a documentarian making her narrative debut, was inspired by a real-life case. In fact, all the court scenes follow the exact transcripts of the trial. However, the film reaches its emotional apex by what Diop and her co-writers Amrita David and Marie Ndiaye choose to show or cut from those transcripts.
In the beginning, Diop lulls the audience into thinking we are in a textbook familiar courtroom drama. All the usual characters are present, from the calm, commanding judge to the slightly villainous prosecutor with the hollering voice to the defense lawyer with the exacting manners. The proceedings are also familiar; the choosing of the jurors, bringing out the defendant in handcuffs, requesting her to plead guilty or not guilty. But as we settle in for the expected, Diop and her cinematographer Claire Mathon pull the rug from under the audience and throw us into emotional turmoil.
Using long, uninterrupted takes that center the court officers, the witnesses, and most affectingly Coly herself, Diop unveils the real themes of her movie. This courtroom drama ripped from the headlines about an unfathomable crime is in fact an empathetic story about generational trauma and the hidden but irrevocable bonds between mothers and daughters. Diop sticks to the court transcripts for large swaths of the narrative, but chooses to omit, for example, when the prosecutor and arresting police officer launch into a psychological diagnosis of Coly based on her background and race. Instead, Diop drowns out their voices with those of chanting women. These men need not try to explain Coly when she is present and more than capable of doing so.
Much of Saint Omer’s strength comes from Malanda’s staggering portrayal of Coly. It’s a performance of rare and vivid clarity. As Coly is called upon to tell her side of the story, Malanda never flinches and delivers long monologues in a straightforward manner that somehow also hint at the turbulent life and choices of this woman. Her face registers so much that she makes us understand a lot beyond the forthright dialogue taken from the court transcripts. She makes us understand Coly as a whole, where she came from, and how she got to where she is.
Saint Omer does something that not many films are able to; it dramatizes the effects of colonialism in a very personal and understandable way. Coly was born in Senegal, a former colony of France, but immigrated to France in her early twenties. Those of us who come from postcolonial Africa can relate to that experience. We grew up with the remnants of colonial culture still in schools, in government processes, and even in our homes. Coly’s parents implore her to speak French rather than Wolof, figuring that would lead to better opportunities. Her university professor is astounded that she would choose to write her dissertation on the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein and not someone closer to her culture. The press keeps talking about how she’s “sophisticated” because she speaks well. Even the French man she’s had a child with keeps her hidden, ashamed of their relationship. And in between these micro and macro aggressions, Coly can’t find her way and ends up isolated and alone.
Diop never judges Coly or tries to wring sympathy for her. Rather, she invokes compassion for her circumstances by linking her to Rama, who might be constructed as a stand-in for Diop or one of her writing collaborators. The portrait of Rama’s relationship with her mother is slowly and masterfully revealed as the reason she’s so taken with Coly. The mother is a withholding woman with whom Rama doesn’t seem to have a real connection. Or so it seems. The screenplay, alongside Kagmae’s restrained performance, takes its time to connect the dots, making Saint Omer’s payoff even grander. Diop fills so much detail into Rama’s life and relationships but with minimal storytelling, finally revealing lifetimes of generational trauma.
This is a rich text, bracing for the minutiae it includes and for what it excises. Its power comes from a director who knows exactly what story they want to tell and how to tell it well.
(Saint Omer opens in select theaters January 13.)