As I type this intro, the verdict to the Darrell Brooks trial has just been read, ending a weeks-long shitshow of an abuse of a public system of representation for someone who was clearly guilty (I can say that now, since he very much so was found guilty on every charge). It brings to mind the circus act that can come from the U.S. judicial system, and how the televising of such proceedings can turn even the least media savvy individuals into ratings-seekers. From O.J. Simpson to Timothy McVeigh to Casey Anthony to George Zimmermann to Derek Chauvin, America has proven how a system made for executing justice for victims has become just another outlet for entertainment for so many, resembling more of a sports match than a legal proceeding. It makes me wonder why I don’t often see footage of court cases in other countries, why shows like Court Cam don’t exist elsewhere, or how we haven’t found the “French Nancy Grace,” or whatnot. Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, beyond just being a rousing courtroom drama, opens up the doors for ignorant foreigners, such as myself, to discover how court proceedings, lacking the tabloid-style coverage so often found in America, actually are conducted.
Rama (Kayije Kagame) is a literature professor and author based in Paris. Writing a new novel about the seemingly random murder of a baby girl by her own mother, Laurence (Guslagie Malanda), Rama travels to observe the murder trial of Laurence in real time to gain insight on what might be the reason that Laurence did what she claims to have done. During the trial, Rama is forced to come to terms with the strained relationship she has had with her own mother while confronting what led to a mother taking the life of her own daughter.
When Saint Omer is described as a “courtroom drama,” we’re not kidding. It took me a moment to fully realize just how much this film is focused solely on the testimony of Laurence and the proceedings of the trial alone. There was a point when I began to wonder if we would ever return to Rama and the story that the brief opening began to set up for her. There are extended sequences, usually consisting of just a few takes, of court testimony, of world-building, and of examining the circumstances that might lead someone to commit acts of heinous violence, if there are any at all.
This approach leads to some truly wonderful performances all around, but, most importantly, from Malanda, whose powerfully layered testimony felt like a trial of the audience itself, digging into our emotions, experiences, and prejudices in “victim or victimizer?” situations. Saint Omer presents the facts of the case to the audience at the same time as the jury, with no dramatized backstory to go along with the testimony. Just us, the judge, and Laurence. It leaves the film moving at a particularly slow pace, but delivers the right blows at the right times, and manipulates the audience into believing or disbelieving certain things at certain moments. It’s up to us, and in a courtroom drama so detached from taking a side, it’s quite exciting.
Unfortunately, because of this focus on the trial alone, when the film does take small breaks to interject Rama’s storyline into the film, particularly with the metaphor surrounding the parallels between Laurence’s motherhood vs Rama’s mother’s motherhood, things begin to get murky, because we as an audience have been given the opportunity to hear about Laurence’s (alleged) experiences, and not many of Rama’s. The grand parallel fails to make an impression when the focus is nowhere near equal; not that it necessarily had to be, but enough to where we can accurately make those connections without having to just assume or fill in with things not even alluded to vaguely.
The film also makes no qualms about very obviously making clear references and parallels to the tragedy of Medea, even having Rama watch clips from the 1969 Pier Paolo Pasolini film depicting the titular character murdering her own child. This is a great departure from the previous, minimalist, open-to-interpretation approach to the film’s plot leading up to this moment, and it feels like a real moment of the film telling us how we should now start to feel at the ¾ mark into the film. It’s a broad stroke that never pays off as the remainder of the film returns to the much more open-ended character study.
Then, Saint Omer ends, and the audience is left with more to talk about than they began with, and frankly, it’s a stunning ending sequence that hammers home what I really liked about the first ⅔ of the film, before things had to be hastily tied up. It’s smart, quiet, and places the ball in the court (no pun intended) of the audience, without leaving them in the complete dark of ambiguity; it’s the perfect balance. I really wish that the film, not wishing to draw a parallel between Rama and Laurence, stuck with its slow guns of presenting a court case in its dramatized entirety, touching on the things it does like abuse, cultural violence, immigrants’ rights, racism, etc. I found myself most engaged with the film when it gave Malanda the chance to shine in her film-stealing performance. Still, even with that missed opportunity, there was nary a moment when Saint Omer (or Medea Goes to Jail) didn’t leave me completely fascinated, whether by its story, structure, open-ended nature, or just in seeing how court cases are handled in a culture completely different from my own. For that, it remains in my mind long after the credits roll.
Screened during Film Fest 919 2022.
In theaters November 23rd, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Les Films du Losange Saint Omer webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.