Film, Went There

WENT THERE: Alice Diop @ the HFA

Appeared screening SAINT OMER 4/10



Spoilers ahead.

In the Greek tragedy Medea, the titular figure achieves infamy through perceived acts of self-destruction. She murders her two children that she shares with her husband Jason (of the Argonauts) when Jason leaves her for a princess (and I suppose, in fairness to relevant parties, she also kills the princess and her father). Never mind the fact that Medea abetted Jason in dismembering her brother when they were stealing the Golden Fleece, a distraught Jason calls Medea abominable and “utterly hateful to the gods…and to the whole human race.”

One can find the similarities between Medea and Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) in Alice Diop’s Saint Omer. Modeled after Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese-French woman who was convicted of the 2013 murder of her 15-month-old daughter, Laurence can be seen as a blurry reflection of Medea’s psyche — that is, the sort of dark rationale that remains unrevealed and, perhaps even more uncertain, by the end. Revolving around the trial of Laurence, the film doesn’t carry the kind of emotionally charged actions that cement heroes and cowards into Greek legend nor does it share judicial antics in the likes of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 or Steve McQueen’s Mangrove. In fact, it’s much unlike any courtroom drama that you will see in most narrative formats. Borrowing from her previous work in documentary, Saint Omer is what Diop called a “compilation of genres” at a Q&A hosted by the Harvard Film Archive. The recreation of the events — dialogue taken from the courtroom scripts of the 2016 trial under DOP Claire Mathon’s emphasis on natural light — and the “dissonance of image” creates a rare closeness to the experience without embarking on sensational information to fill the details in between. Saint Omer has a bite of a different kind.


The story of Medea is brought up by Rama (Kayije Kagame), a pregnant novelist and professor who considers calling the title of her coverage article “Medea Castaway.” Her agent tells her that the title might be too obscure for the public. Still, Rama watches Pasolini’s 1968 Medea in her hotel room in between the trial days, where she sits and watches the case unfold. At two hours, most of Saint Omer consists of long shots of Laurence at the witness stand, Rama in the gallery, the judge, and the prosecutors. Even in the usual silence of watching a movie in a sold-out room, I couldn’t help but feel that there is a specific possession that takes hold of the audience, as if we are also in the courtroom giving uninterrupted time to the characters. The imposed role upon the audience as secondary observers is also guided through Rama’s presence, who Diop creates as a surrogate for herself (Diop attended the 2016 trials in person) as well as a sort of avoidance to the “voyeuristic” view to a “lurid” story. Diop, Parisian-born of Senegalese immigrants, bridges a likeness between Laurence/Fabienne and herself through Rama, and to an extent, women who have been scrutinized in all levels. Despite the obvious wrongdoing, there is an underlying terror in watching a Black woman picked apart in a mainly white court. In witnessing Laurence’s publicized dissection of her mental status, intelligence, and romantic relationships while also translating Rama’s reactions and implications of her role in society, is nothing short of a heavyweight exercise in empathy.


While Saint Omer is Diop’s first narrative film, the genre can only be used so loosely. The film plays out like real life whittled down to vantage points — the gazes at and of the characters, steadiness of certain dialogues and ambiguity of others — that makes it feel honed into Diop’s perspective and what she wants us to take away from it. The film does not succumb to flashbacks (the daughter is shown once in the beginning, but Diop refuses to show any evidence of her found body) or even to the verdict. Replacing that climax is a fictional liberty that Diop takes: the prosecutor (Aurélia Petit) stares directly in the camera and delivers a daring, passionate speech that does not quite condemn Laurence, though we can fathom her outcome. “What I’m telling you is not poetry,” the prosecutor begins. “It is science.” She calls all women chimeras, in which we carry the bits and pieces of the mothers before them and the daughters after. “In a way, us women, we are all monsters. But we are terribly human monsters.” (Diop shared that Fabienne’s lawyer was the first person to see the finished version of the film and wished that she came up with a speech that good.)

The responsibility of showing female antagonists on screen — supporting women’s wrongs, as you might see in celebratory comments about Tang Wei in Decision to Leave or Cate Blanchett in Tár— can be a significant reflection that we place women in society, especially the marginalized. It is the kind of uneasy ending that mirrors the chasms and lapses in our supposed societal and political “progressions.” But there is a reason why the story of Medea has been adapted and evolved in different fictions, including Black literature (Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a popular example). Our morality is confronted, but even for those who are conflict-averse, it can be compelling. When Jason rages at Medea, she responds, “Call me a she-lion, if you like…for I have touched your heart in the vital spot.”


Saint Omer
dir. Alice Diop
122 min.

Saint Omer is currently available digitally and on demand

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