The courtroom is one of the most fascinating spaces in cinema. On the one hand, it's an environment where protagonists can relay their thoughts and actions without their words feeling like forced exposition; on the other, the questioning and answering can feel stagey and dialogue-heavy, where the audience is hearing rather than seeing the action. They are challenging to get right. The best ones, like Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, will give some insight into the human condition, with the director using the courtroom high jinks to ask whether it should be society on trial.
Saint Omer was the richly deserved winner of the Silver Lion, Venice Film Festival’s runner-up prize. It builds on Diop’s sharply-drawn work as a documentarian – her most recent, Nous (2021), took an empathetic look at Paris’s underclass.
And she uses that same documentary nous to full effect in Saint Omer. The story's based on the real-life trial of Fabienne Kabou in 2015, a Senegalese immigrant accused of murdering her 15-month-old baby. Diop attended the trial and took copious notes, with dialogue from the trial making its way into the text of the screenplay. Her fictionalisation of the events contextualise the prosecution within the borders of immigration, motherhood and colonialism.
It does this by witnessing the events through her on-screen surrogate Rama (Kayije Kagame), a successful novelist and academic we first see teaching a uni class about the impact of the shaven-headed women in the Marguerite Duras-scripted Hiroshima Mon Amour. It's all about perspective.
Diop uses the courtroom high jinks to ask whether it should be society on trial.
Soon, she persuades her publisher to allow her to follow the trial, which resonates with her as she's pregnant and her own relationship with her mother is strained. So she heads to Saint-Omer, in north-eastern France.
At the trial, she bears witness to the stunning testimony of Laurence Coly, played with remarkable grace by Guslaigie Malanda. The highly intelligent PhD student has confessed to the crime, but claims sorcery was behind her actions. Malanda’s stunning performance, combined with restrained camera work of Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and Amrita David’s glacial editing, harks back to Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Robert Bresson's 1968 reworking, The Trial of Joan of Arc.
Like those cinematic legends, Diop uses the story of a seemingly demonic woman to show how the workings of society have contributed to her downfall. Rama hangs on her every word, understanding that historical trauma and a racist society has contributed to Coly’s derangement. The powerhouse denouement is a staggering insight into how colonial legacies continues to affect lives today.
Saint Omer premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The release date is TBC.