Alice Diop transforms the courtroom drama with this powerful recreation of a real-life French case questions the very notion of objectivity.
Between Calais and Lille lies the sleepy coastal town of Saint Omer. In 2016, a woman stood trial for killing her baby. Of Senegalese origin, Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a PhD student with a purportedly high IQ, defends her actions by arguing she was under the control of witchcraft. In the audience is acclaimed novelist Rama (Kayjie Kagame), who is seen lecturing on Margueritte Duras at the start of the film, before attending a family dinner where the tension in her relationship with her mother is palpable. These elements may seem disparate, but in documentary filmmaker Diop’s hands, they become key elements in approaching a crime that most people would consider heinous. By its end, Saint Omer may not disabuse people of this view, but it raises enough questions to suggest that such a crime requires us to understand why it took place.
With a steady camera, employing rich use of colours, Diop gradually draws us into the case and Rama’s reaction to it. The filmmaker – who was present at the actual case – wisely avoids any easy conclusion or explanation, instead leaving us to grapple with what we have seen. Malanda is riveting as the accused, her remoteness, initially inscrutable, gradually shifting to reveal a troubled young woman. She’s a stark contrast to the emotional Rama and the contrast between the two becomes central to the film’s exploration of race, femininity and justice.