SAINT OMER (NYFF 2022) – Review by Margaret Barton-Fumo

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The CNC recently announced, following a day of deliberations, that Alice Diop’s Saint Omer will represent France in the best international feature film category at the upcoming Academy Awards. The decision is not particularly surprising, following the film’s successful premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Silver Lion Grand Jury prize and the Luigi De Laurentiis Lion of the Future award—although it is not the typical Oscar fare.

Largely confined to a courtroom in Saint-Omer Criminal Court, the themes of the film are grand, including motherhood and murder, but the performances are subtle and nuanced—hardly the type of sweeping epic often favored by the Academy. Saint Omer is nonetheless frankly emotional, if academic in tone.

Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanga give stirring performances as the two leads, acting effectively from different ends of the courtroom. Malanga plays Laurence Coly, a woman on trial for the murder of her fifteen-month-old daughter, while Kagame plays Rama, an author attending the trial in search of inspiration for her book on Medea. Bearing witness to Laurence’s testimony, Rama begins to reflect on her own experience as a daughter of Senegalese immigrants and a mother-to-be, stirring up emotions that were previously tamped down. For Rama, Laurence is both inscrutable and familiar, facing similar challenges that Rama must deal with every day.

Guslagie Malanga’s performance as Laurence is alternately reserved and emotive, reflecting a woman with complex motivations. Rama is transfixed by Laurence’s testimony, and fearful of making a connection. The two women lock eyes once across the courtroom, and Rama is visibly shaken, retreating to her hotel room where she cries uncontrollably.

Aided by Claire Mathon’s crisp cinematography, Diop’s direction is assured, with a minute attention to visual detail. Her first narrative feature, Saint Omer seamlessly blends fact with fiction, in a manner similar to that of her previous films. Diop has stated that all of her films “exist at the frontier where [fiction and documentary] meet,” and Saint Omer is no different. In conjunction with her co-writers, Amrita David and Marie Ndiaye, Diop reworked dialogue from the actual court case of Fabienne Kabou and allowed her actresses to perform under minimal direction. She also recreated the space of the criminal court in an adjacent room, adorning the walls with wood paneling in a measure of authenticity. With a cast that includes professional, amateur and non-actors, all of the courtroom scenes ring true to life, with an added drama that ties the film together.
And yet Diop also portrays fictional scenes of Rama’s life that are sometimes expressive, or set to a moving score of female vocals. Rama’s background and family life is presented visually through pixelated home videos, while Laurence’s story is both illuminated and obscured by her courtroom testimony, which is peppered with claims of witchcraft and half-truths. It is Diop’s delicate balance of fact and fiction, and of truth and lies, that delivers such a complex and compassionate narrative of these two women. She is a massively talented director, in the process of developing her own film language. It’s an impressive feat for a young artist, certainly worthy of an Academy Award nomination.

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Margaret Barton-Fumo

Based in New York, Margaret Barton-Fumo has contributed to Film Comment since 2006. Her monthly online column, “Deep Cuts,” focused on the intersection of film and music. She has interviewed such directors, actors, and musicians as Brian De Palma, James Gray, Harry Dean Stanton, and Paul Williams, and has additionally contributed to Senses of Cinema and Stop Smiling. She is the editor of Paul Verhoeven: Interviews, published by the University Press of Mississippi.