Released in the UK in February 2023, Saint Omer began to stream on MUBI in the UK at the end of March. It is undoubtedly one of the the major releases of the year. Its release was accompanied by extensive coverage in Sight and Sound (March 2023), including an interview with director Alice Diop and her long-time friend Claire Denis. Diop had in 2021 won a prize at the delayed Berlinale with her feature-length documentary Nous (France 2021). Saint Omer is her first fiction feature, albeit based on a real court case from 2016 and featuring long ‘procedural’ sequences of the trial which reveal her documentary skills.
Alice Diop was born in Paris to Senegalese parents. She saw TV coverage of the arrest of a young woman who she knew must be Senegalese and decided to go to the trial and experience the proceedings. They had a profound effect upon her and she wrote Saint Omer with her editor Amrita David and Marie N’Diaye, a French-Senegalese writer who also worked on the script for Claire Denis’ 2009 film White Material.
Saint Omer is a small town in Pas-de-Calais. In the film the writer and university lecturer Rama (Kayije Kagame) travels to Saint Omer from Paris and takes a hotel room for the duration of the courtroom hearing. We have already seen her with her white partner Adrien and at a family dinner as well as giving her lecture which involves a discussion about Margaret Duras’ writing of Hiroshima mon amour alongside newsreel imagery of the women accused of collaboration who had their heads shaved in 1945. Rama finds the trial extremely disturbing. The young Senegalese woman Laurence Coly pleads not guilty to deliberately causing the death of her infant daughter Elise, even though she agrees the facts – that she left her baby on the beach at Buerk-sur-mer a short distance away from Saint Omer, believing the body would be washed away by the sea. Laurence is a very bright young woman with perfect French but she enters a plea that sorcery forced her actions. Rama meets Laurence’s mother who has come from Dakar. The mother recognises that Rama is pregnant and Rama becomes very distressed. There are indications that she, like Laurence may be having bad dreams.
I’m surprised that in all the material on the film I have studied, nobody has mentioned the first feature film by the Senegalese filmmaker and author Sembène Ousmane, La noire de . . . (Black Girl, Senegal-France 1966). In Sembène’s film Diouana, a young woman in Dakar, is desperate to visit France as her experience of meeting French people in Senegal has convinced her that she should travel to the metropolitan centre and experience French culture. In the event she is employed in Dakar by a middle-class French couple who move back to the South of France and take the young woman with them. Initially she expects to be a nanny looking after their child. In the event, however, she is employed as a maid and domestic servant and becomes very unhappy as she feels imprisoned in the house. The story ends badly for the young woman. This experience ties in with other similar stories. Soleil Ô by Med Hondo (Mauretania-France 1966) and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Season in France (France 2017) are among many other films which deal with/comment on the experience of Africans coming to France.
Laurence is in a similar situation to Sembène’s Diouana when she arrives in Paris. Although well-schooled in French, she has not got the qualifications to pursue the further studies that interest her. We hear a great deal about how she lives with an aunt then marries a much older French man, the father of her child and how later she does attend university classes but does not take exams. She suffers from alienation not going outside the studio owned by her husband. She becomes convinced that she is a victim of ‘sorcery’, though there is no evidence that she spoke to anyone about this, even though she gives names to the court.
The other factor which Diop introduces for the character of Rama is a narrative thread in which she speaks to her publisher about using what she learns/feels from witnessing the trial and taking it as inspiration for a book. Part of her research is to consider the story of Medea and she watches extracts from Pasolini’s film of Medea (Italy-France-West Germany 1969) with Maria Callas as Medea. Does she do this to justify the expense of covering the trial or because she genuinely wants to pursue the idea? Either way it upsets her. Medea is the figure from Greek mythology married to Jason (of the Argonauts). When ge leaves her to marry another woman, Medea kills the woman and her own two children by Jason. The story became one of the most performed Greek tragedies as a play by Euripedes. In the 20th century it has been one of the most performed Greek tragedies and has attracted the attention of feminist critics and scholars as well as women theatre directors and actors.
The film is characterised by its slow, deliberate pacing and its precision in the details of court procedure and the careful use of language. The courtroom sequences are not ‘dramatic’ – this is not a generic ‘courtroom thriller’ – but I found them gripping. We see the jury selection and the way both prosecution and defence avocats challenge the selection. The two stand out performances in the courtroom are by Valérie Dréville as the President of the Court and Aurélia Petit as the defending avocat, Maître Vaudenay. Saint Omer is a powerful film with many layers. I’m not sure I’ve understood everything in Rama’s dreams. There is no ‘resolution’ in the film but there is certainly much to think about. Highly recommended, I would be surprised if I saw anything better than this in the rest of 2023. If I do, it’s going to be very good! Saint Omer is also available to rent on many streamers, but rates vary.
I agree with you that this is an outstanding film. The slow pace and the restraint of the camerawork contribute to the way the sense of fate overtakes the story. Immaculate acting resonates in the box of the trial set-up. Since I saw the film, I have seen a production of Medea for the first time so I think I need to see Saint Omer again!
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Yes. I did mean to mention the performances of the two leads, both relatively inexperienced but as you say, immaculately presenting Alice Diop’s vision of her experiences. There is a lot more to say about the film, including the setting in Saint Omer and the contrast with Paris for the young women of Senegalese descent. You’ll have to tell me what you made of Medea.
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