Alice Diop’s SAINT OMER

I reviewed Alice Diop’s SAINT OMER for It plays in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center through Thursday, 1/19:

Alice Diop’s SAINT OMER (France)

Gene Siskel Film Center – See Venue website for showtimes

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Alice Diop (whose non-fiction work I am not familiar with) made her narrative feature debut with this complex and beautiful character study about two women of Senegalese descent living in contemporary France. Pregnant Rama (Kayije Kagame), a successful novelist and professor of literature, attends the trial of—and becomes obsessed with—Laurence (Guslagie Malanga), a college student of limited means who stands accused of murder after abandoning her baby on a beach at night. The film, which daringly asks viewers to sympathize with a character who has committed a monstrous crime, is based on the true story of Fabienne Kamou, who was arrested for infanticide in 2013 and whose 2016 trial Diop attended. The dialogue is based in part on transcripts from Kamou’s real-life trial, which lends the extended courtroom scenes a rare verisimilitude, but what really impresses here is Diop’s mise-en-scène. Diop shoots Laurence from a different camera angle during each day of the trial, although she never deviates from this angle within each individual scene, lending a near-Bressonian formal rigor to the proceedings. While the technique of shot/reverse shot editing has become synonymous with lazy filmmaking in the modern era (because of how it often removes creativity from the process of shot selection, turning dialogue scenes into simple ping-pong matches), Diop imbues this technique with a fresh relevance: she refuses to show reverse angles when viewers are most likely to expect them, a strategy that eventually pays emotionally devastating dividends during a climactic exchange of glances where one character smiles while another silently weeps. Diop’s final masterstroke is to end the film before the verdict is reached, an unusual touch that recalls the denouement of Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Diop is wise enough to know that hearing a judge proclaim “Guilty” or “Not guilty” would put viewers in the position of agreeing or disagreeing with the judgment, when her real interests have lain elsewhere all along. As Jonathan Rosenbaum remarked on his website, the director has generated enough questions by the end in order “to make a verdict seem either impossible or superfluous.” (2022, 122 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

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