The audience is the jury in the understated courtroom drama Saint Omer, and a film that simultaneously challenges your empathy for a mother who drowned her small child—and your attention span.
A well-made and superbly acted piece of filmmaking, Saint Omer is nonetheless a trying experience if you don’t subscribe to the same wavelength director and co-writer Alice Diop adheres to. The French film is set primarily in a small Parisian courtroom and, with minimal camera movement, remains fixed on the defendant much of the time as she attempts to explain her mindset. It’s a movie wholly uninterested in the legal maneuvers of lawyers (although, admittedly, what I found most fascinating is how the courtroom setting differs from those here in the U.S.); instead, its aim is to elicit emotional reactions and potential sympathy for the woman on trial, a young African immigrant.
Saint Omer is not a movie designed for me in mind (how dare someone make a movie not made for my preferences!); it’s slow, it’s meticulously understated, and for a movie that seeks to tap into the emotional core of our selves, it is told in such a stoically unemotional way (seriously, no melodrama here) that it’s be hard to argue that it isn’t outright boring.
And yet the case at hand, the carefully crafted writing, and the powerful performance by Guslagie Malanda (who plays the defendant) keep you watching. Malanda is fantastic, her talent erupting from the pores of her intentionally restrained character. Her portrayal here makes the movie worth watching.
Oddly, while she gets the most screen time, she technically isn’t the main character. That title goes to Rama, played by Kayije Kagame, who is supposed to serve as the emotional crux of the story. Sadly, Kagame, her character, and the role she plays in the movie did absolutely nothing for me. I mean, complete nothingburger. I almost wanted to fast forward through her scenes, not because Kagame does a bad job but because her connection to the broader story simply doesn’t work.
For the right kind of person, I can see Saint Omer resonating deeply. For the rest of us, there is a lot to appreciate, but the end product is more trying than a compelling trial. And while Diop puts you in the jury seat, it’s quite clear that this woman is fucking guilty as charged. Verdict rendered.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.