Thanks to NEON’s FYC DVD screener pack that I’m able to watch this last month. It’s on my Top 15 Honorable Mentions of 2022 and it was very close to being on my final Top 10.
Saint Omer refers to a Northwestern French town called Saint-Omer where Rama, a French-Senegalese literature professor, and novelist, attends a trial of another black female, Laurence Coly. Coly is tried in a criminal court for leaving her baby daughter on a beach and Rama intends to use her story to write a modern adaptation of Medea, a female figure in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. If you’re curious who Medea is, she ends up murdering her own sons with Jason after he abandons her and gets her banished.
Saint Omer is the quintessential legal drama where most of the film takes place in the courtroom. Before the trial, we see Rama spend time with her boyfriend, and the two visit her Senegalese family for a quick meal. Just from the brief scene with her mother and sister, it’s clear there’s a rift in Rama’s relationship with her mom. It’s not clear what exactly causes that, but over the course of the trial, we slowly learn there are some similarities between Rama and Coly, more so than just the fact that both of them are French-Senegalese and are in a mixed-race relationship with a Caucasian Frenchman.
In order to make legal dramas work, it’s important that we have a captivating case and intriguing performances. Both are found in this film, and writer/director Alice Diop presents the story in a compelling way. She forgoes dynamic camera work or editing technique, the cinematography by Claire Mathon mostly capture the characters’ faces and their emotion. The script written by Diop, Amrita David, and Marie N’Diaye doesn’t simply spoon-feed the audience with a straightforward case. Life isn’t always simple and black & white, and neither is Coly’s case, even if what she did is morally and legally wrong.
Kayije Kagame as Rama and Guslagie Malanda as Coly don’t really share a scene together apart from the glances they throw one another during the trial. Yet there’s a palpable spiritual bond between them that’s mesmerizing to watch. Malanda in particular has a resolute, piercing gaze that one can’t turn away from. Clearly, Rama feels a personal connection to Coly and though Coly can’t communicate with a member of the audience, I’d like to think that she finds Rama a kind of kindred spirit. I can’t help but wonder what life would’ve been like for both if they had met prior to Coly’s tragic decision.
Despite the story being set within the Black diaspora, there’s a universal element to the story about generational trauma, maternity, complicated mixed-race affair, and even mental well-being that resonate with me as a person of Southeast-Asian descent. It also speaks to me in terms of the immigrant experience, plus the expectations and pressure of what the adopted community (in this case France) expects of those who are considered ‘outsiders.’ Coly is well-spoken and highly educated, yet she still struggles with being accepted by the racial majority where she grows up in. Now, Coly isn’t blameless and at times her terse response can be frustrating, but it’s gratifying to see a depiction of a complex black female who’s intelligent but emotionally vulnerable.
Aside from the harrowing case itself, the film is quite fascinating to me in the way it depicts the French court. The speech by the defense attorney towards the end is a heart-wrenching one, while Diop chose not to reveal the verdict for miss Coly. In the end, whether she is found guilty or not is irrelevant, but one thing is clear, the trial has a profound impact on Rama as she reflects on her own situation and life journey. This is a restrained but unflinching human drama that I wish more people would check out. I sure hope to see more from miss Diop and the two performers at the center of the film.
6 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Saint Omer (2022) – a restrained but heart-wrenching human drama by Alice Diop”
I do want to see this as I’ve seen a few shorts by Alice Diop though I have to remind myself to not be confused with her cousin Mati who is also a filmmaker. They’re both second-generation filmmakers.
Wow I didn’t realize Alice is related to Mati Diop! I LOVE Atlantics by Mati Diop, which is even more mesmerizing.
I thought this was very good. I think the film struggled a bit when they were outside of the courtroom. Those scenes were just so riveting.
Yeah, I think the scenes within the courtroom are so captivating. Similar to WOMEN TALKING, a good story and direction can make the most mundane things so riveting.
Pingback: Alliance Lately: Issue No. 70 – The Minnesota Film Critics Alliance
Pingback: Happy International Women’s Day! Musings on female representation in Hollywood + celebrating female filmmakers – FLIXCHATTER FILM BLOG