The “Saint Omer” explosion, plea for an abyss

She enters. And everything is changed. Space, time, the use of speech. The place is however the most codified there is, the most suitable for framing the singularity of individuals, and their power of disruption: a courtroom.

First handcuffed, Laurence Coly is immediately the bearer of this power of movement. She talks about herself and what she did: kill her 15 month old daughter by abandoning her on a beach at night.

The words, precise, sharp, relate less to the moment of the crime than to what happened before, or elsewhere. These words deposit, as on a table, disjoint elements of explanation of the inexplicable.

She talks about loss of control and well-regulated organization, occult powers and relationships with her parents, the father of the child and the country where she has settled, she the brilliant young Senegalese promised to studies that she never did. What she says is woven with dissimulation, honesty and incomprehension. What she doesn’t say is vertigo.

An off-screen point

She is on stage, under the gaze of the judge, the prosecutor, the public. The only one who doesn’t look at her – the layout of the place makes her turn her back on him – is the one who has spent the most time with her since her arrest: her lawyer. Much later, she would repeat in her own words, those of a plea, a way of dealing with what was at stake. And it will be stunning.

In the audience is the young writer, Rama. She came from Paris, where she teaches literature, to Saint-Omer, to attend Laurence’s trial. She said nothing to her companion, father of the child with whom she is pregnant.

Of Senegalese origin, but born in France, she felt a closeness with this defendant whose career was nevertheless in many respects different. In this poor city in the North, this young black Parisian is not in the place those who look at her would expect her either.

In court, Rama looks at Laurence. But what is Laurence looking at? Straight and firm like a tightrope walker on an invisible thread, she fixes an off-screen point, which is like the epicenter of this film-earthquake.

There is no name for what she did, for the reasons and unreasons that made her do it, for what she experienced. She is certainly guilty under the law, she does not deny it, but of all that did what happened, what does that say?

Rama, she tries to understand – both the background of Laurence’s journey, and her own motivations. She knows that it will be partial, and that the elements will not connect with each other. Emotional and political earthquake, Saint-Omer is also this film-archipelago, which proudly affirms its refusal of any closure. Shadows, chiaroscuros, contradictory elements are inevitable and necessary.

Rama (Kayije Kagame) and Laurence’s mother (Salimata Kamate) in the streets of Saint-Omer between two hearings. | Diamond Films

Yes, there are the issues of colonial heritage, those of motherhood, sisterhood, transmission, the question of influence. There are the rules of the legal and media game, racism, material and cultural inequalities. There is, in one way or another, the place of the supernatural, and certainly the power of words. And even more.

The space of a common world

The more the film progresses, the more the accused responds to the prosecutor and the judge, the more the writer who listens to her and watches her is worked by what dissimilar and what resembles between her own situation and that of the woman in the courtroom , the more mysteries the film takes on.

Mysteries in the plural, activated by the past and the present, the words and the looks, the anxieties that we can say, those that we dress up with names and those that no one can formulate.

These are networks of forces that innervate the film, without necessarily connecting. They are questions, burning or freezing, vibrating or gripping, which are part of this world – our common world.

This world also inhabited by all these very different people who appear at the end of the film, and who witnessed this deployment of affects and impulses which so powerfully affected Rama, to the point of ending up terrorizing her.

Her character is an echo, fictitious and stylized, of the place held by the director. No more than we will know the verdict of the trial, we will not know if Rama will write his book. But we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that whatever the criminal case may have inspired in him, Alice Diop has found a way to answer: the cinema.

Saint-Omer starts from a specific situation, a real news item that gave rise to a trial (the Fabienne Kabou affair, judged in 2016). It is put on film by a filmmaker who has personal reasons to feel concerned by this event, as anyone who has seen her previous films knows, until the recent documentary We, which was one of the events of the beginning of this year.

blankThe president of the court (Valérie Dréville) and the lawyer (Aurélia Petit). | Diamond Films

And it is very exactly from there, from this space drawn by the real affair, the personal journey of the director, and the possibilities of directing the cinema that the singular energy, perceptible by anyone, of the Alice Diop’s first fiction film.

These possibilities of the staging are, for example, the framing and the powers of the off-screen such as those of moments of asserted frontality. These are the editing and arrangement of ellipses and parallels, the video archive resource and the articulation of interiors (the court, the hotel room, Rama’s apartment and that of his family) and outside. It is the composition of colors and lights in intelligence with what the fact of filming the faces of black women requires.

four and four women

And it is, in this particular case, the intensity and the subtlety of the interpretation of the four actresses who carry all the emotion, the complexity and the mysteries of the film.

Incantatory and sharp, quivering at times of disarray and at times of arrogance, and inhabited by an aura that evokes the masks of magic ceremonies, the Laurence of Guslagia Malanda is in itself a prodigy which polarizes forces which one would believe to be incompatible.

And paradoxically, the fact that the three other performers have mainly played in the theater contributes, in a place as theatrical as a courtroom, to making the incarnations of Kayije Kagame (Rama), Aurelia Petit (the lawyer) and Valerie Dreville (the judge).

As if, in front of someone as intimate a filmmaker as Alice Diop, their experience of the stage helped them to occupy the space, to use their voice, to find the facial and body expressions best suited to the big screen. .

By a secret mirror effect, these four women in the image are also born from the work of four other women united to deploy all the power of evocation of the actresses: the director obviously, the co-screenwriter and editor Amrita Davidthe co-screenwriter Marie N’Diayethe chief operator Claire Mathon.

Whoever reads the credits carefully will see many other female presences who contributed to the birth of the film. It is impossible to mechanically attribute the effect of such or such on the final result, it is nonetheless very noticeable that there are multiple links between these presences and the film as it is.

Saint-Omer is so undeniably an important film, with the same great emotion of spectator during the projection and artistic and political proposal of a remarkable magnitude, with long echoes long after having seen it, that it now risks disappearing behind too many praise.

Multi-award winning, invited all over the world, designated to represent France at the Oscars, this first fiction feature film undoubtedly deserves the honors it garners. But it is even more important to welcome it as simply, as openly as possible. What it has to offer, which is immense, will only be better appreciated.

Jean-Michel Frodon’s film reviews are to be found in the show “Cultural Affinities” by Tewfik Hakem, Sundays from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. on France Culture.


by Alice Diop

with Guslagie Malanda, Kayije Kagame, Aurélia Petit, Valérie Dréville, Robert Cantarella, Didier de Pourquery, Xavier Maly


Duration: 2h02

Released November 23, 2022

The “Saint Omer” explosion, plea for an abyss