Witches and Women: Our Review of ‘Saint Omer’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - January 20, 2023
Witches and Women: Our Review of ‘Saint Omer’

Courtroom dramas or documentaries feel macro these days. The objective of recent entries to the genre is to reach a judgment on individuals who took control of a country. And those people committed atrocities on its behalf. Alice Diop’s first foray in fiction Saint Omer, is the outlier. Unlike those films, the protagonist here is Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda). She’s a Senegalese woman who committed a crime on one person. A friend further explained the premise to me.

In his explanation, a French court put Laurence to trial to help her and the country figure out why she committed that crime. That crime, by the way, is infanticide. An English language court would never indulge her in this, by the way, and the lack of disbelief in this premise makes it more interesting. I can’t subjectively quantify how racist France is compared to an English speaking country. But the former is letting a Black woman not just say her piece but also to ask what may be an unanswerable question.

I can add more personal reactions to the premise, and one of the places I mentally arrived at is why courts exist in the first place. She can lie about why she did it instead of asking people who will never know her mental state while committing the crime. The question also leaves out her victim who can’t speak for herself. What my friend left out in his synopsis is that this film used Fabienne Kabou’s 2016 real trial as the basis of its story. It also has deuteragonist in Rama (Kayije Kagame).

Rama is a fellow Senegalese woman observing the trial as an academic writing a novel about…the trial. Another thing that makes Saint Omer interesting is how as Rama sees Laurence as a version of herself. First, both are academics with white love interests. The only thing setting them apart is that Rama ‘succeeds’ in ways where Laurence fails. The film mostly focuses its camera on Laurence. But there are moments when it returns to Rama, the aesthetics showing her as an everywoman.

Rama is one within the sea of women on the bleachers witnessing a trial where the judge and the defense attorney are also women. The film exists within an outside patriarchal society, yes. But it’s like the courtroom is this matriarchal space where women can hear the story a woman who commits the worst crime imaginable. Or they can listen to the one male witness, Laurence’s boyfriend, who thinks that the crime is incomprehensible. Saint Omer does have its flaws, the main one being its ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. I’m not even discussing Laurence’s inconsistent story because all stories are inconsistent.

Without spoiling anything, the characters or the viewers may never know the truth about the crime that happens offscreen. The film then puts ambiguous details on top of each other in ways that it makes me think something. That this is when Diop and her collaborators strayed from real life. The film’s premise isn’t that deep, but I’ll explain why that may not be a bad thing. It’s everywoman is Rama, but she acknowledges something that I and presumably many people also know. That the only difference between her, everyone, and Laurence is that the former two groups have the luck and privilege. Unfortunately, Laurence does not. Just because this isn’t deep doesn’t mean it’s untrue.

Watch Saint Omer at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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