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Duras would approve
An ambitious young woman, who has interrupted her university studies in Paris and found lodging with her much older boyfriend, murders her 15-month-old daughter. The crime cries out for explanation. The most obvious story line is the attempt, carried out through the legal system, to learn why the highly-literate, Senegalese immigrant Laurence has killed her child.
Right, Guslagie Malanda,
with her passive face,
as Laurence, in the witness box
for her trial for infanticide.
Director Alice Diop, a Parisian of Senegalese descent whose prior films have been documentaries, recounts Laurence’s life through the woman’s mostly impassive testimony at her murder trial. Reversing the mantra of “show, don’t tell,” neither Laurence’s life nor her actions are visualized except for her slow, dark night walk to the ocean with the infant Lili in her arms. The only other major character is a courtroom observer, writer and teacher Rama (Kayije Kagame), another Senegalese Parisian, who is deeply and emotionally affected by Laurence’s testimony.
The only action we see of Laurence, outside of the witness box, is her slow, dark night walk to the ocean with the infant Lili in her arms.
Two women occupy minor though important roles: the defense attorney (Aurélia Petit), and the judge (Valérie Dréville) [in French law, the judge is a more active inquirer than under American law]. Men are portrayed unsympathetically: the flippant, sarcastic prosecuting attorney (Robert Cantarella) and Laurence’s self-protective, mendacious lover, Luc (Xavier Maly).
Rama (Kayije Kagame), left, a courtroom observer as well as teacher and writer, is deeply and emotionally affected by Laurence’s testimony.
Diop unsubtly signals her purpose early on, as Rama teaches Marguerite Duras’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour” with its images of French women having their heads shaved for their reputed affairs with Germans during World War II. Such a woman, Rama tells her class, “an object of shame, becomes, thanks to the author’s words, not only a heroine, but a human being in a state of grace.”
On one level, the film is a feminist interpretation of the plight of women.
Winner of numerous awards, including the Venice Film Festival’s 2023 Grand Jury Prize (Silver Lion) and submitted by France as its candidate for Best Foreign Film Oscar (the country’s first submission of a film by a Black female director), “Saint Omer” is on one level a feminist interpretation of the plight of women, here a young, proud, undervalued, immigrant woman of color with limited resources. Through Rama, and with scenes from the Greek tragedy, Medea, Diop also foregrounds the anxiety that many women face in childbirth and child rearing.
The questions from the judge and the attorneys and the measured responses from Laurence are more philosophical debate than cross-examination.
Reports of the film being “emotionally harrowing” miss a more cerebral framing. Laurence (Guslagie Malanda) has been a student of philosophy. On the witness stand, she says she came to Paris to study Wittgenstein (a teacher testifies that she would do better studying someone “from her own culture”), to be “a great philosopher,” and she describes herself as a Cartesian. Laurence—and the filmmaker—critique knowledge and knowing, question the goal of arriving at “the truth,” and question whether the heinous act of infanticide can result in a state of grace. As if to emphasize the point, the film ends before the jury renders its verdict. Greek tragedy, Duras, Wittgenstein, Descartes: hardly the marks of straightforward feminism, or of a narrative designed simply to reach an understanding of Laurence’s act.
Diop, who sat through the 2016 trial of a Senegalese-French woman accused of killing her young child, struggles with the turn from documentarian to narrative story-teller. With the exception of a few scenes showing Rama teaching, at home, or alone in a hotel room, we are in the courtroom, watching the accused woman. The film has a static quality, comprised mostly of detailed, legalistic exchanges and the facial expressions of Laurence. At the same time, Diop has migrated from the documentarian’s “truth-telling” toward a more nuanced, complicated, and ultimately unknowable “heroine.” Duras would approve.
Director: Alice Diop
Starring: Guslagie Malanda, Kayije Kagame, Valérie Dréville, Aurélia Petit, Robert Cantarella Xavier Maly
Language: French, with English subtitles
Runtime: 122 minutes
Other Awards: 17 wins and 42 other nominations