Despite a detached look at a horrifying crime, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer manages to show true empathy for a subject which shouldn’t elicit any. The result is a delicate portrait of the complexity of the immigrant experience.
Literature professor Rama (Kayije Kagame) travels from Paris, France to Saint-Omer to cover the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga). Coly is a Senegalese immigrant accused of allowing her 15-month-old daughter to drown on a beach. As the court proceedings continue, Rama becomes increasingly anxious about her own life and pregnancy as she observes Cody telling her life story to the court.
Coly’s guilt is never in question. The film never puts any doubt into whether or not Coly actually killed her child. It’s all about the why. The court proceedings seems as fair as they can be, but each witness displays as much victimhood as Coly refuses to give. Coly never plays the victim, but stands with a matter-of-fact frankness of the reality of the situation. When she is called on any lies, she explains them with steady rationale. She is completely believable and obviously guilty.
It’s the biggest strength of the film. The filmmakers absolutely refuse to paint Coly as the monster we all expect her to be. Instead, Rama’s similarities in upbringing and isolation put further context to the perpetrator. Rama sees Coly’s immigrant experience through the eyes of someone who understands. Each response to unfair questioning or an accusation, just leads Rama further down a rabbit hole of despair. Is there anything actually wrong with her life, or she just projecting?
The two actresses are front-and-center for the bulk of the film. Kagame is mostly silent, but wears her anxieties like a coat. She has no voice in the courtroom, and might not even want to be a part of it. But her characterization and looks speak volumes. Malanga gets much more time with dialogue, but still keeps so much close to the chest. It is never fully clear why she killed her daughter, and Malanga never allows her facade to break. It’s one the great supporting actress performances of the year.
Xavier Maly plays Coly’s partner, the closest thing the film has to a villain. He attempts to exude sympathy but the layers reveal him to be more complicit that we believe. Similarly, Salimata Kamate plays Coly’s mother, who is simultaneously empathetic and loathsome. A late-film monologue delivered by Aurelia Petit, as Coly’s defense, is one of the speeches of the year. It is unflashy and brilliant. No actor misses.
Diop shoots the film in long, uninterrupted takes. Each shot adds to the tension where there shouldn’t be any. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that is nothing less than enthralling. She doesn’t do too much with the camera and allows the audience to be as much of a viewer as Rama does.
Powerfully acted and shockingly empathetic, Saint Omer proves Alice Diop to be a force in narrative features after an early career of documentaries. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Saint Omer will release to select theaters on Friday, January 13th