“Saint Omer” is a dry, patience-testing parable about cultures clashing, cultural disconnection, motherhood and the eating fear of infanticide many mothers harbor — “The Medea Complex.”
That, by the way, would have been a much more informative, dramatic and poetic title than the drab name of the city where a dramatically-flat French murder trial takes place, that of a Senegalese immigrant accused of leaving her baby to drown in the surf.
But “more informative, dramatic and poetic” would have been too easy for French-born (of Senegalese parents) filmmaker Alice Diop, known for documentaries (“We,””La mort de Danton”) about refugees and African immigrants in France, and an acclaimed French TV series about the various forms of violence against women in French life.
Diop gives us clues of what her debut feature film is about grudgingly, masks her messaging with endless and dully-shot and performed scenes of the trial, and surrenders any illusion of “entertainment” pretty much entirely in this movie which touches on racism, superstition, the French system of justice and Every Mother’s Nightmare.
Plainly, others got more out of it than I did, as this is France’s contender for the Best International Feature in this year’s Academy Awards. But when you introduce an accomplished, striking and barely-sketched-in college professor and promptly drop her into a trial she’s observing 15 minutes into your movie, and don’t let us escape that courtroom’s real-time tedium for 25 solid minutes, you’re not just testing your audience. You’re abusing it.
The script doesn’t reveal exactly what it is about this nationally notorious trial that makes college professor and novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame) want to witness her fellow countrywoman’s questioning. Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) had a baby with her much older, white lover (Xavier Maly). Isolated from her partner, her family and her own culture in a strange land where she hoped to study law, fixated on a “curse” put on her when she left Senegal, she left the baby girl on the beach at Berck-sur-Mer at low tide. Fishermen found it.
Rama, who is teaching Marguerite Duras using images of French women who slept with Nazis having their heads shaved as punishment and “shaming” after World War II when we meet her, is also in an interracial relationship. She is, it turns out, pregnant. And despite being a beautiful accomplished novelist in a multicultural democracy, she starts to feel some of the same pressures Laurence claims as Rama listens, with growing concern, to Laurence’s lengthy questioning from a judge and the lawyers in court.
Oh, she’s here because she thinks this trial could serve as fodder for her next book, “Medea Castaway.” Diop drops this key piece of information FAR later than she should have, in a phone chat with Rama’s publisher, who isn’t keen on that title.
That would be a handy fact to have at hand when this first-time feature director is burying us under emotion-free testimony about Laurence’s early life, her relationships, emotions and insistence that “sorcery” had a hand in this murder.
“I don’t think I’m the responsible person in this case,” she flatly declares under questioning in a courtroom which provides subtle drama and no histrionics, and eats up the vast majority of “Saint Omer’s” two-hours-plus running time.
The meat of the movie is the way white, Gallic French society, via its courts, treats The Other. Judges and lawyers lightly debate just how seriously “cultural” differences have to be taken into account for this murderous act, with one lawyer glibly comparing it to “African female genital mutilation” and a judge suggesting “FGM,” at least, has perceived “benefits.” “Infanticide does not.”
Perhaps I’m misreading what spins out, in French with English subtitles, in those courtroom scenes. What I hear and understand is a steady drip-drip-drip drowning of Laurence’s various “reasons,” “excuses” and lies about her academic career, her background and supposed superstition, which comes off as her attempt at a “get out of jail free” card for this unspeakable crime.
Because none of the (mostly) female (all) white people questioning her have a clue about any of that. And French tolerance and sensitivities notwithstanding, they like the viewer judge this “curse” business as nonsense or a lie.
Rama, taking the “motherhood” and “stranger in a strange land” revelations too hard, weeps at some of what she’s absorbing, fretting over her own situation, privileged though it may be. And every Senegalese and white person she speaks to or overhears can’t stop herself or himself from noting how “articulate” Laurence is, how smooth and educated her command of French comes off in court.
Racist? Oh yes.
But perhaps one has to be a mother and have struggled with the psychology of pregnancy to better appreciate the “Medea” business in this script, which is underplayed to the point where one must ask other critics the blunt question, “Are we reviewing the movie, or the director’s statement about what she was trying to accomplish?”
While there are things to be explored and pondered in drab “Saint Omer,” Diop’s organization of her message and lack of prioritization of simple courtesy-to-the-viewer information we need in order to follow the story and answer that fundamental question, “What the hell is this thing about?” leaves a lot to be desired.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language
Cast: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Salimata Kamate, Xavier Maly and Thomas de Pourquery
Credits: Directed by Alice Diop, scripted by Alice Diop and Amrita David. A Neon release.
Running time: 2:02