In 2016, in the courtroom of Saint-Omer, a small, untouristed town off a D-road between Calais and Lille, the trial took place of a young Senegalese Frenchwoman accused of murdering her baby: an act so utterly antithetical to accepted ideas of motherhood and womanhood that it is inescapably considered the “worst of all possible crimes.” The woman, a PhD student with a reported genius IQ and a flair for flamboyantly intellectual French, confessed but claimed sorcery as the real culprit. It’s the kind of true story that presents an obvious opportunity for a sensitive social drama given to sober, sorrowfully objective observations about the perilous, tumbling vortex of class, gender, ethnic and cultural issues in which it plays out. “Saint Omer,” the deceptively austere, extraordinarily multifaceted fiction debut from documentarian Alice Diop, is not that film.
Instead, positioned on a mesmerizingly steady axis stretching, as though along a fascinated gaze, between the defendant and a courtroom observer based on Diop herself, “Saint Omer” challenges accepted ideas of perspective, of subjectivity and objectivity — and even of what cinema can be when it’s framed by an intelligence that doesn’t accept those accepted ideas. Forged in the hypnotically absorbing, painterly long takes of Claire Mathon’s inscrutably calm camera, edited by Amrita David with an intimacy that feels at times like the slow thump of your heartbeat inside your own head, the film inhabits a shockingly strange and sad story from the inside. From the eye of that storm of -isms and issues, where it’s eerily still, it’s the chattering judgements of the endlessly mediated world outside that feel dangerous, undisciplined, even crazy.
This courtroom drama begins in a university classroom, where Rama (Kayjie Kagame), a successful novelist, is lecturing on Marguerite Duras. She speaks of the way the “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” screenwriter, through her art, could translate the state of shame conferred upon the shaven-headed “collaborator” women of World War II, into a state of grace. Later, Rama and her partner Adrien (Thomas De Pourquery) visit her family for a dinner at which Rama’s strained relationship with her mother is evident. Already now, perhaps through the peculiar alchemy of Kagame’s superbly still and watchful performance, the tiniest flicker can provide volumes of information. When she and Adrien are asked what kind of remodeling job they’re planning on their home, it’s not quite clear how we know that Rama’s quick evasion signals simultaneously that it’s a baby room, that she is pregnant, and that she doesn’t want her family to know — but we do nonetheless.
After a brief discussion with her publisher, who gives his blessing to her project about a minor cause célèbre infanticide trial — one Rama intellectualizes as having resonance with the ancient Greek myth of Medea — she arrives in Saint Omer, and is seated in the courtroom when the defendant, Laurence Coly (a riveting Guslagie Malanda), takes her place on the stand. Lit by Mathon like a Rembrandt portrait in an ocher cardigan against the wood-panelled courtroom walls, and then left alone to occupy long, uninterrupted takes, Laurence gives her considered, lucid, utterly disingenuous testimony over the next few days. It’s hard to believe she was operating under the mystical influence of some evil-eye possession, and not just because of secular skepticism about curses and witchcraft. Within a woman this chillingly self-possessed, how would there be room?
She is questioned with brisk but not unsympathetic directness by the judge (Valérie Dréville). Discrepancies in her story are spotlit by the prosecuting counsel (Robert Cantarella). Her older, white, married lover — the father of the murdered baby — contributes his self-serving account of their relationship. And she is occasionally redirected by her defense team, led by Ms. Vaudenay (Aurélia Petit), whose spine-tingling summation is among the only whole-cloth inventions of the screenplay, co-written by Diop, Amrita David and Marie Ndiaye, and largely reworked from the transcripts of the actual trial. But throughout it all, the real connection that evolves is between Laurence and Rama, whose unreadable yet somehow vividly apparent reactions work time and again to dismantle our preconceptions as hers, too, undergo slow, lurching revolutions. There grows in Rama, also a Black Senegalese French intellectual in a relationship with a white man, carrying a mixed-race child, an insistent, horrified identification.
On occasion, a moment in the trial obliquely cues a childhood memory of Rama and her mother. Quietly and crisply presented, these sequences — “flashbacks” seems too crude a term — are again almost preternaturally evocative. In one such, her mother wordlessly washes up the bowl she has just been using, sets it and a box of chocolate-milk powder down in front of her young daughter and leaves without once looking at her. The cold choreography of this routine, a paltry act of barely adequate care, is a mini-essay in alienated, mutually uncomprehending familial relations, as is a scene during a court recess, when Rama and Laurence’s mother Odile (Salimata Kamate), who is also attending the trial, have lunch in a nearby café. “This must be very difficult for you,” ventures Rama gently, before noticing the terrible pride that Odile seems to take in the media’s tacitly condescending coverage of her daughter’s articulacy and comportment.
It is a subtly radical act to place us in Rama’s viewpoint, from which vantage we helplessly observe how the constant rumble of covert racist prejudice invades even this scrupulously run courtroom, clouding any understanding of Laurence’s complex, possibly sociopathic humanity, and removing her agency, however perverse and destructive that agency may be. When Laurence’s PhD advisor takes the stand and talks of discouraging Laurence from pursuing a thesis on Wittgenstein because she’d be “hiding behind a philosophy that is not about her” — because anyone from an African background could only ever be pretending at insight into the great Austrian thinker’s work — it’s hard to tell if the jolt of pure rage comes from Rama or from inside yourself, but by then there is little divide. To feel what Rama feels, which is to feel what Diop feels, is a paradigm-shifting privilege, perhaps especially when the slow, deepening scorch of “Saint Omer” is about both how little we can ever truly know anyone, and how it’s only through the constant effort to do so that we might a little better come to know ourselves.