Saint Omer - Alice Diop - NYFF
Credit: Laurent Le Crabe
by Igor Fishman Featured Film Horizon Line

Saint Omer — Alice Diop

January 13, 2023

A woman stands in the courtroom witness box, her face tensed, pained, and withdrawn, her hands clasping the railing before her, while the judge’s questions dig in like nails: What was your childhood like? Why did you come to France? What was your relationship with your mother? But despite this endless barrage, the interrogation is about one question and one alone, a question that doesn’t sit as easily as the others, a question that lingers and poisons the air, leaving the room cold: “Why did you kill your child?” “I don’t know,” the woman answers. “I’m hoping this trial will give me the answer.” And so begins the action that forms the heart of Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, a film that may be inspired by a real-life trial, but one that roots itself just as much in the immortal myth of Euripedes’ Medea. Diop, who has already proven herself an expert documentarian, shifts modes here with remarkable ease and commands a confident narrative debut positively vibrating with ideas; a mythic maelstrom compacted into the suffocating environs of a small courtroom.

While Medea is explicitly evoked only in passing, including a brief nod to Pasolini’s film adaptation, the Greek play pulsates through the runtime and the trial’s combative dialogues adopt a poised theatricality; their lines paralleling those of the ancient text. Its story is simple, but far from straightforward: Medea, a sorceress from the East betrays her family and homeland to help Jason (of Argonauts fame) steal the Golden Fleece, after which she escapes to the Grecian city of Corinth to wed and bear his two sons. When Jason makes clear his intentions to abandon her for a “proper” Greek wife, Medea executes horrific revenge: poisoning his wife-to-be and murdering the children as a way to end his lineage. Diop masterfully entwines her narrative with the play, and showcases how the ensuing trial tacitly weaponizes the mythology of Medea’s betrayal, treachery, and, most importantly, her “otherness,” allowing the woman who stands before the court to serve as the vessel for a slew of projections, which only further obscure her reality.

Before we arrive at Saint Omer, the small French town hosting this trial, we are introduced to the other key character in a scene that unlocks the weight of the film’s title. Here we meet Rama (Kayije Kagame), a scholar and a novelist finishing a lecture on Marguerite Duras with a clip from the Resnais-directed, Duras-penned, Hiroshima Mon Amour. The fragment shows “justice” dolled out to women considered traitors to France at the close of WWII — Medea’s betrayal of her homeland for Jason is thrown back in her face at the end — the protagonist having slept with a German soldier and so humiliated for it. This moment is forever seared into memory by the French town where it took place: Nevers. In Hiroshima Mon Amour, “Nevers” becomes a word of devastating power, like “Hiroshima” is a word of power, the film’s lovers exchanging these words as revelations. There’s a broad range of human suffering and degradation contained in the histories of these places, and here Diop mirrors the exercise by lending another small French town that same affliction — “Saint Omer” will become a word of power as well.

In Saint Omer, Rama bears witness to Laurence Coty (Guslagie Malanda), the young Senegalese immigrant standing trial for abandoning her 15-month-old daughter to die, left helpless to the sweeping ocean tide. Paralleling Jason is the reluctant father M. Dumontet (Xavier Maly), an older white Frenchman who, ashamed of his relationship with Laurence, has kept the affair and their mixed-race child a secret. It might be easy to infer the decision-making here, a poor young immigrant, isolated with no friends and cut off from her family, financially dependent on a lover who attempts to distance himself from both the child and the relationship, resorts to the most drastic solution imaginable. Yet, things are complicated when Laurence, a graduate-level Philosophy student, evokes sorcery as a defense, claiming she has been the victim of an evil spell. This twist scintillates the press and encourages the court to probe and question. “We are here to try to understand, you must explain!” the judge demands of Laurence, but the court’s “understanding” is barbed. It’s not an attempt to attain justice or empathy, but rather to recontextualize the events that transpired to something safe and status quo. A Black woman stands on trial before the white judge and jury in the French countryside, Jason’s famous reply to Medea ringing in subtext: “I was mad to bring you from that barbarian lair to this bright land of Greece… No Greek would have dared what you have done.” The racist implication of the judge’s probe and prosecutor’s attacks percolate as the trial moves forward.

Rama sits and watches, herself a Black woman in a mixed-race relationship, four months pregnant, projecting onto Laurence, and planning to write a book — her publisher suggests having Medea in the title. Diop films the proceedings with gorgeous restraint, forming still compositions that resemble portraiture. At one point the Mona Lisa appears, and later the reference goes off like Chekhov’s gun when for a split second Laurence locks eyes with Rama and shoots her an inscrutable smile from her stately perch. Another influence Diop notes for the painterly look of Laurence on trial is Andrew Wyeth’s Grape Wine, which depicts Willard Snowden, a drifter who lived above Wyeth’s studio, in the style of portrait typically reserved for Renaissance nobility. Diop’s pull to elevate her subjects runs through her documentaries in much the same way, like when she creates space for young Black actor Steve Tinetcheu to perform a monologue denied him by his theater troupe because of his race in The Death of Danton, or the way she juxtaposes video footage of her late father alongside the ritualistic mourning of Louis XVI at Saint Denis Basilica in We. Another technique ported over from her documentary work is the camera’s roving eye; it sits on subjects long after they have stopped talking, or fixes on those listening to allow us time to scrutinize reactions. In the courtroom, this manifests as Rama’s gaze, which occasionally shifts focus from defense to prosecution, from the jury to the window, or occasionally shifts to those seated in the audience.

At one point her gaze settles on the only other Black woman in the room, who turns out to be Laurence’s mother. Never taking the stand, we learn only bits and pieces about her in the testimony, but Rama and her begin to spend time together outside of the courthouse. Once this connection is revealed, a gorgeous symmetry develops:the three mothers in the court, the mother that was (past), the mother that is (present), and the mother that will be (future). With each day of the trial, we inch closer to Laurence, made literal by Diop’s camera pushing deeper into close-up until the final days, when her face fills the screen, and yet our proximity doesn’t deliver any more clarity than we had before; the closer we get to Laurence, the further we are from what happened. As the days go on, Rama begins to drift into her own past as hard memories surface, and further unsettle her. “I’m scared I’ll be like her,” Rama confesses to her partner late in the trial. “Like who?” he asks. By this point, it appears we’ve spent too much time with Laurence, that the projection has become too real, that the tacit violence has surfaced too much. “Like my mother,” Rama says. A cold reminder that people aren’t as simple as they seem, and our projections may blind us to the truth. Rama stays through the trial’s end, but its true revelation lays here. At the end of Euripides’ play, Medea escapes on a golden chariot pulled by dragons; it’s unlikely that Laurence will share that fate. Instead of triumphant vindication, Diop leaves us with a lasting bit of poetry: a mother and a daughter sit together holding hands. The mother’s breathing has grown raspy over time, the inhale and the exhale are rough and loud. The two women rest together, easing into the quiet of a late afternoon nap. Eyelids slowly drop, and the screen cuts to black. The mother’s breaths persist. The rhythmic push and pull sounds like the sweeping ocean tide.

Published as part of NYFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.