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‘Saint Omer’ Review – Diop Has Mastered the Power of the Look

Kayije Kagame in 'Saint Omer'. Credit: Srab Films.

Staff writer Oisín McGilloway reviews “Saint Omer”, a film questioning the morality behind an act that seems, at first, to be born from pure evil.

We often judge our favourite films by how they make us feel. What effect do they have on us? What are they trying to say? Alice Diop’s first fictional feature, “Saint Omer”, seems to resist this rule. A pre-established maestro of documentary cinema, Diop’s refrain from pushing the audience in any direction gives her characters and the story a sort of Cassavetian agency that brings them staggeringly closer to real life. Throughout the film’s concise yet deeply engaging narrative, based on the true story of a woman put on trial for the infanticide of her 15-month-old daughter, “Saint Omer” uses objectivity and a true-to-life presentation of its protagonists to force us to interpret their actions for ourselves.

This objectivity is clearly a deliberate choice by Diop, who attended the real trial of Fabienne Kabou on which this film is based. Diop has said in interviews that what drove her to attend the trial was an occasion when she was walking through Gare de Nord in Paris and saw a mother pushing her child in a pram. This happened a couple of days after Kabou’s case broke the news, and Diop describes an unusual connection to this stranger that she’d never experienced before. They were both women, and of Senegalese heritage, but what Diop claims founded their connection was motherhood.

The idea of childbearing as natural is a foundation of the way Western societies treat women, despite the damaging effect it can have on mothers. What Diop wants to do is showcase the effect that motherhood can have on women, albeit with an extreme example. Originally, we are led to believe that Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is the villain. However, as the case unfolds and we find out more about her life, this accusation becomes skewed. Indeed, at the start, when asked why she committed the crime, she replies: “I don’t know; I hope this trial will give me the answer”. Motherhood, as Diop would have us believe, is a lot more than just birthing a child, and puts the mental strength of women to the test — any outside interference or hindrance is bound to have a knock-on effect.

In the story, Rama (Kayije Kagame), the character who embodies Diop’s position, is attending the trial in order to plan a rewrite of “Medea”, the Ancient Greek Euripidean tragedy. She herself is pregnant, and so what she thinks will be an objective spectacle that can inspire her new novel instead harbours a deep connection with Laurence that obscures her initial opinion. This relationship with Coly is created for us through Diop’s unflinching cinematography, which lingers for so long on Laurence that we become aware of our own staring, unable to look away, taking time to examine her exterior so that we can understand her interior. The separation between interior and exterior is actively pointed to when Rama watches Pasolini’s filmic version of “Medea” (1969). As she skips to the climactic murder scene, we see flashes on her laptop of different facial expressions as the screen jumps through the film. We can take what we will from these expressions of pain and anger, and as many have noted the face is the window to the interior. But here, Diop is suggesting that it isn’t that easy: if it was that easy, then we would know exactly what was going on in these sections that Rama is skipping. We may be able to read a person’s true character through their expression, but what we see also depends on our own biases.

This is especially poignant as much of the evidence supplied for Coly’s case incriminates her. She lies, she withholds information, but at the same time, she was a university student, torn away from her dreams by motherhood, receiving no help from others. So, is she panicking? Is she mad? Or is she just a vitriolic criminal? Diop’s move away from documentary to fictional representation feels very deliberate here, as it further obscures any form of direction that the audience might be pushed in — the trial is a very sensitive and emotionally complicated one, which one can only hope a director will help us to understand.

But Diop resents this; she is putting the onus on us, not allowing us to hide behind her camera, letting our reaction to the story be dictated by our own judgemental disposition. In “Saint Omer”, Diop has achieved objective documentary in a fictional film, bringing us inextricably closer to a story that is mostly fictional. “Saint Omer” is a real lesson in how to make truly affecting cinema.

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