TIFF 2022 Review: Alice Diop’s “Saint Omer” Compassionately Reenvisions What’s Criminal

You’re aware of the limits of one person’s perspective from the moment that “Saint Omer” starts, when Rama (Kayije Kagame) awakens from a dream that her partner Adrien thinks involves her mother when he can hear her murmuring “mom,” but in being privy to what’s in her mind, you know it’s her who is carrying a baby, imagining herself at the beach. It could be her own, but just as likely she may be putting herself in the shoes of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), a woman whose trial she later attends, surely fascinated by their commonalities as the daughters of first-generation Senegalese refugees in France, but while Rama’s path has led to finding success in academic circles, Laurence confesses on the stand that after becoming disillusioned in school, she felt more comfortable wandering around in the woods where she could be alone.

Now being tried for murdering her 15-month-old daughter Elise, Laurence must feel more isolated than ever, though writer/director Alice Diop, who bore witness to similar legal proceedings as a foundation for her extraordinary drama, makes sure she is understood, something that may not happen within the walls of the court even as all involved listen to the same testimony, but clears the air so her voice becomes resounding outside of it. Envisioning the film as an extension of the gallery where Rama sits and observes the trial, Diop and cinematographer Clare Mathon will often set frames where sharply composed still frames deepens as Laurence is interrogated by both the judge and the prosecuting attorney about the events leading up to the infanticide, questioning that subtly reveals as much about themselves and the flawed system they’re operating inside as it does about her as she describes an average youth and a lack of encouragement, ultimately leading her to live and have a baby with a man 30 years her senior when few others options would seem to exist for her.

There is little question about whether Laurence is responsible for the crime or whether she’ll be convicted for it, but it leads to doubts for Rama that have nothing to do with the case at hand, seeing the limits on her own potential by how Laurence is treated and Diop and co-writers Amrita David, Zoe Galleon and Marie N’Diaye expertly set audiences up to evaluate what’s unfolding than we’ve become accustomed to, dropping in on a lecture Rama gives on Marguerite Duras and a visit to her mother before entering the courtroom for the context she’s entering with. In seeing Laurence reflect on the past in transfixing long, unbroken takes where a sense of defeat looms just beneath the mother’s desire to defend herself in Malanga’s devastating turn, the nuances of circumstance and Laurence’s personal history rise to the surface in a way laws are usually too rigid to acknowledge and while Laurence is accused of the unthinkable, “Saint Omer” opens up myriad lines of thought about what actually deserves to be held up to scrutiny and the camera will occasionally stray to observe others in the gallery where on starts to wonder what they must be thinking as well.

From the courtroom on, the number of private enclosures that Diop makes so readily accessible in “Saint Omer” becomes breathtaking and the director’s ability to see multiple generations of women in the families that Laurence and Rama come from and the vicious cycle they appear caught in through a single storyline is the mark of a master, though it is only her first narrative feature. Following how effortlessly she collapsed space with her compelling Parisian doc “We,” Diop is able to cut across time without losing any of the weight that comes with it as Rama can see herself in Laurence particularly in her relationship to her mother, just one of the many ways the director removing barriers left and right to connect to the considerations that shape their experience, including the screen itself it seems with such an absorbing film.

“Saint Omer” will next screen at the New York Film Festival on October 3rd at 8:30 pm and October 4th at 6:15 pm and the London Film Festival at the BFI Southbank NFT1 on October 10th at 8:35 pm and October 11th at 3:10 pm.