Saint Omer – French Film Festival 2022 – Film Review

We have heard of elevated horror films and now comes another genre being elevated court room drama in the form of films such as Saint Omer. It is a film providing an immersive insight into a heart wrenching court case, based on real life events, involving a mother accused of abandoning her child alone on a beach to drown. Saint Omer’s focus differs to the established genre as it is not procedural in nature. Instead, the focus remains on Rama, as a writer planning to re-interpret the Greek mythology of Medea, who travels from Paris to Saint Omer to observe the case as inspiration. As such, Saint Omer generates a degree of warmth enabling the film to raise itself above the parapet of the existing court room battle film canon with a well-made, emotional, heartfelt outlook.

Saint Omer is Alice Diop’s debut directorial feature and her craftmanship impresses thoroughly. Diop’s directorial skill has received recognition as Saint Omer was awarded the Best Debut Film and Silver Lion awards at the Venice Film Festival. Part of Saint Omer’s charm is its slow approach to revelations. There is a preference to being present which is illustrated by the camera’s tendency to linger on day-to-day activities. Rama, played by an empathetic Kayije Kagame, is seen teaching but also lying in bed with the camera following the contours of her body admirably creating a mood and conveying a sense of beauty. The beauty from the lighting and the fabrics provides that contrast to the tense settings of her memories which intersperse Rama’s present. The cinematography is indeed as superb as expected from renowned cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also worked on the sumptuous Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Diop works well with Mathon and carefully places layers of familial tension, without extensive dialogue, thus allowing the breathing space for audiences to deduce the rationale for Rama’s intense focus on the court case.

Saint Omer emphasises relationships, Rama has a supportive partner who notices her obsession with the court case and questions its impact on her. The Defendant, Laurence Coly who is a Senegalese immigrant, through her testimony, reveals the nature of her relationship with the child’s father and others in her environ. The significance of such relationships is apparent in the expressive, impressive performance from both Kagame and Gusalagie Malanda’s Laurence. Tenuous parallels can be drawn between the women’s circumstances as the camera’s close ups present that immersion for Rama but equally us, the audience.

Gusalagie Malanda as Laurence in Saint Omer
Gusalagie Malanda as Laurence in Saint Omer

Saint Omer depicts a poignant perspective of a crime that seems so heinous. The film’s strength lies in underlining the humanity that is still in effect by witnessing the case unfold bit by bit. Diop therefore requests the audience to consider the duality of a character who may, on initial impressions, seem evil by virtue of the crime committed. This raises that oft-posed question within criminal psychology as to whether the perpetrator is mad or bad. It may be a question that is still levelled towards women, such as Laurence, on many occasions and therefore underlines the existing institutional and systemic prejudices to dismantle.

Diop’s use of silence encourages that self reflection of biases, within the court proceedings, and simultaneously ratchets up that tension. Saint Omer may provoke an emotional response however, the film’s appeal also lies in its refusal to succumb to melodrama. Diop, masterfully, allows the overflowing of raw emotions of a woman subjected to the scrutiny of a French tribunal to infiltrate otherwise sterile surroundings. The impact of such emotional resonance is therefore difficult to ignore. Cultural differences also come to the fore within the courtroom interrogation thus exposing stereotypes. Still, there is no judgement from Diop and the camera maintains a neutrality.

Such neutrality also extends to the colour palette employed in Saint Omer. This is undoubtedly one of the key flourishes from a female lens alongside the subtle, delicate approach adopted to tackle such a profound subject matter. Laurence is remarkable in wearing warm, natural browns which complement the colour of the wood panelling within the courtroom. It is an effect designed to put the spectators at ease and may be a conscious choice from Diop to assist the audience, from a psychological perspective, to resonate with Laurence on a humane level alongside the members of the jury. It is an effective device to provide a calming sensation in spite of the horrors revealed whilst court is in session.

Gusalagie Malanda in Saint Omer
Gusalagie Malanda in Saint Omer

Saint Omer is a directorial feat providing a voice to women in a similarly precarious situation to Laurence and to women writers such as Rama. It is an exquisite insight in to the prejudices placed upon marginalised women and the frustrations they may encounter, within a courtroom or else via their peers as a writer. Saint Omer provides that fresh approach within an established genre and dares to promote an alternative. The film’s ability to pierce through our sub-consciousness to raise implicit questions will be a useful tool to progress activism concerning increased numbers of imprisoned black people. Diop’s talent has certainly been highlighted and hopefully she will continue to be recognised as a director that will not cease to challenge perceptions.

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