Review: Saint Omer

Written and directed by Alice Diop, co-written by Amrita David, Marie N’Diaye and Zoé Galeron, follows Rama, a novelist who attends the trial of Laurence Coly at the Saint-Omer Criminal Court. Hoping to use her story to write a modern-day adaptation of the ancient myth of Medea, but things don’t go as expected. Starring: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanga, Robert Cantarella, Thomas De Pourquery, Valérie Dréville, Ege Güner, Salimata Kamate and Atillahan Karagedik.

Watching this film is quite possibly two of the most intense cinematic hours that you’ll ever experience. Alice Diop takes no prisoners with Saint Omer, her style is unrelenting, unforgiving and will not let you look away for a second. Part of that is just how enthralling it is and the other part is because she absolutely refuses to cut away until the very last second. The entirety of the film is packed with extended sequences with a powerful stillness. It sheds a harsh yet curious light onto this story, picking at the details and possibilities to its slow reveal of the bigger picture. It’s not going to be a film for your average viewer but for those who can appreciate it, they’ll be left in awe of what Diop achieves.

One of the most fascinating elements is that in a world obsessed with the gory details of crime, the writers of Saint Omer will not bow to that desire for scandalous knowledge. It centres itself on one of the most atrocious crimes that anyone can commit but it’s not interested in telling you how it happened, instead it wants you to delve deep into Laurence Coly’s (Guslagie Malanga) persona. Not only that but in how she’s perceived as a Black, immigrant, young woman, a factor which most strongly comes into play in how frequently her eloquence and education is discussed. It’s almost a matter of surprise in the courtroom that she is such a well-spoken, intelligent woman, and you don’t need to peel back any further layers to know where that attitude comes from. Its unwavering focus allows you to take in everything that Laurence has to offer, and not at face value, there is room to question everything but there’s also room to sympathise. It’s an unusual combination but is absolutely riveting to watch unfold.

However, to a certain degree it does feel as though such a strong focus on Laurence takes away from Rama’s (Kayije Kagame) story. Her character is gradually revealed to us, her emotions are paired with memories casually littered throughout the story but they’re not quite enough to give a definitive view of her. It’s a shame as she’s got plenty to offer but there are a few threads to her story which are left open and it would have been a more satisfying experience to see her story rounded out as much as Laurence’s. However, there is one key element that enhances the entirety of the story and it’s the commitment to realism. It not only acknowledges that people are inherently flawed but it puts their flaws on display for us to dissect, to discuss and debate the morals and ethics of each imperfection.

All of that intensity is a lot of pressure to put upon your cast but Alice Diop didn’t need to even slightly worry when she has Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanga at the wheel. It’s a hard thing to truly do justice in describing these two performances, they are unique, powerful and robust. Both of them give the audience their own individual blend of strength and vulnerability. Kayije Kagame airs on the side of the latter as Rama, she’s fighting against her past and the impact it will have on her future. Slowly having to come to the realisation that internalising all of those issues is only going to fortify their impact. Guslagie Malanga’s Laurence is both entirely open and a complete enigma. She presents a wilful, confident presence but leaves room for the audience to never know if they can trust that image. It’s an intoxicating combination and even when the credits roll, you won’t have all the answers but you also don’t need them.

Saint Omer is intense, powerful and relentless, presenting a fascinating story through an unforgiving lens, leaving you unable and unwilling to look away. The story is fascinating and full of layers that a single viewing can’t do justice to. It’s led by two sublime performances from Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanga presenting two very different women, who maybe aren’t actually that different. Malanga is a formidable presence while Kagame is an engaging mix of confident and vulnerable. Alice Diop’s commitment to her almost overwhelming style is an incredible achievement, and an experience that will stick with you.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

Coming to UK cinemas 3 February 2023

Reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2022

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