The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - SAINT OMER | The Movie Waffler


A writer takes a special interest in the trial of a Senegalese-French student accused of killing her infant daughter.

Review by Blair MacBride

Directed by: Alice Diop

Starring: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Valérie Dréville, Aurélia Petit, Xavier Maly

Saint Omer poster

A first foray into feature films for documentary-turned-fictional director Alice Diop, Saint Omer is an atypical legal drama.

Based on the 2016 French court case of Fabienne Kabou, the film follows a pregnant novelist named Rama (Kayije Kagame). Rama travels to a commune called "Saint Omer" to attend the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagia Malanda), in an attempt to find inspiration for her new book about the Greek tragedy of Medea - the tragedy being a rather morbid story of a woman feeling trapped as an outsider, who later murders her own children as revenge against her adulterous husband. Returning to the present, the link to the ancient Greek tale is that Laurence Coly is a Senegalese immigrant woman who is accused of infanticide. Despite Rama's initial professional intentions, over the course of the trial, she becomes personally fraught as similarities between herself and Coly begin to rear their head.

As Diop's first fictional venture, the film, unsurprisingly, does very well in shining light on the real challenges which immigrants from different cultures may face in western society, through the extreme case and awful experiences of Laurence Coly. Additionally, Saint Omer's narrative is pretty intriguing with it being delivered in a less than conventional way. No doubt a trait ingrained in the director from years of experience, the feature is filmed in a documentarian style. The minimalist stationary camera shots on each subject matter - whether it be Rama; Coly in the witness box; the judge in the trial; or the solicitors of both the prosecution and defence - really build an early intensity, portraying the legal drama as if one were cross-examining the witness themselves.

Saint Omer review

While initially endearing, this style nonetheless later begins to badly affect the pacing of the film. The once enjoyable documentary style static shots begin to go on for what feels like countless minutes on end. Indeed, what appears to be at first a slow burner later turns into a bit of slog.

At its heart, Saint Omer is filled with many core themes like race, maternity, immigration, niche cultures, manipulation and mental health - many of which are commonplace in the work of Diop. From these themes, it is clear that the director is, quite admirably as ever, trying to paint the picture of a wider story; a story which transcends just Rama and Coly on trial. It is the story of general power structures in France, and the difficulties that those from different cultures, other than that of traditional western backgrounds, might experience.

To portray this central message, Diop attempts to use Rama as the focal point of her feature, using the character as our "protagonist": but this is where the film breaks down. Rama is quite uniquely and bizarrely cast aside for the majority of screen time, with the legal trial taking centre stage as Saint Omer's backbone. The film sporadically gives glimpses into short scenes of Rama's childhood, featuring her troubled relationship with her mother, in an attempt to both bring the narrative back to the story's main arc and to highlight the similar plights of Rama and Coly.

Saint Omer review

These efforts, though, are unfortunately in vain. The contents of the trial undeniably evoke harrowing memories in Rama, and she is left disturbed, coping with troubling flashbacks from her own past. What appears so vivid and so clear to Rama, however, doesn't always materialise in the same way for the audience. Although we understand Rama is concerned about becoming a bad mother like Coly because of Rama's terrible relationship with her own mother, this doesn't land as well as intended.

Moreover, it is evident that Rama is severely troubled by what is being brought to light in the legal case, but Diop's wayward direction and poor character development do Rama's story arc a disservice. Indeed, the inability to fully convey one of the central intertwined story themes is disappointing. While there are obvious levels to this plot, the slightly weak and concise flashback scenes leave the viewer craving something deeper.

Saint Omer review

But Saint Omer carries on despite the deflating depiction of a few core themes - the trial nevertheless remains. The continued staccato camera shots going from person to person in the court begin to pick up again, and the film builds towards a crescendo as we await the outcome of the legalities. Yet again, though, this build feels aimless as Diop's minimalist methodology leaves us wanting more than we are actually given.

Although the very nature of exploring complex issues in a relationship is often quite engrossing, the execution of it in Saint Omer is a bit of a let down - something which really detracts from Diop's debut narrative. To its credit, the film succeeds at showcasing the issues of race and immigration in France. That said, overall, Saint Omer fails to land as a result of its poor character building and lacklustre delivery of key plot themes.

Saint Omer is on MUBI UK now.

2023 movie reviews