The Inexplicable Humanity of Saint Omer

Saint Omer begins and ends the same way, with the sounds of a mother’s breath layered over a black screen. Exhausted, worn down by not just the weight of the children they carry but also the expectations thrust upon them, these mothers labor on, waiting for their final rest.

But between these gasps for air, Saint Omer feels almost like a lifeless affair, taking place almost entirely in an antiseptic French courtroom. Throughout, director Alice Diop crafts a clear-eyed ode to immigrant mothers, in all their complexity.

Saint Omer brings viewers into the courtroom via Rama (Kayije Kagame), an author of some success researching her next novel, an adaptation of the myth of Medea, the mother who slaughtered her children in an act of defiance. She’s come to learn about Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a young Senegalese woman accused of killing her infant daughter.

Over the course of the trial, Rama comes to identify with Coly. But Diop quickly untethers the proceedings from Rama’s perspective. Instead, the celebrated French documentarian crafts her first narrative feature using direct, unadorned shots of the characters, putting the audience in the courtroom. In long unbroken takes, the camera watches as the judge (Valérie Dréville), the defender (Aurélia Petit), and the prosecutor (Robert Cantarella) question, accuse, and more often, attempt to explain Coly. In one of the few fluid shots of the movie, the camera passes back and forth from defender to prosecutor as they choose members of the jury. Diop and cinematographer Claire Mathon emphasize the mundane aspects of the procedure, portraying the selection as meaningless bureaucracy, allowing the accused only a small space in the corner of the frame.


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