Saint Omer review: a powerful legal drama

Guslagie Malanga as Laurence Coly in Saint Omer (directed by Alice Diop).
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Alice Diop’s tense legal drama Saint Omer examines the motivations of a mother who killed her child – here’s our review.

For her first ever feature film, documentary filmmaker Alice Diop takes a real-life tragedy and twists it into a compelling courtroom drama. 

In 2016, Fabienne Kabou was convicted of killing her 15-month-old daughter by leaving her on a beach in Berck-sur-mer, France, and allowing the rising tide to drown her. Saint Omer reimagines the courtroom proceedings, replacing Kabou with the character of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), who admits to killing her daughter in the same fashion, but pleads not guilty and believes sorcery made her commit the unthinkable act. 

Observing the trial is Rama (Kayije Kagame), a novelist and university lecturer seeking to write a book based on Coly’s story. As it unfolds, Rama is reminded of her childhood and relationship with her mother, and must reckon with the unsettling feelings the trial unearths for her. 

It’s an interesting way to start a legal drama – usually such stories are concerned with whether the accused is guilty or innocent. Here, we begin with a character who readily accepts her actions, although not full responsibility for them. But Saint Omer isn’t concerned with the concepts of guilt or innocence. 

It refrains from pointing fingers, and the camera simply follows the characters and allows us to listen to Laurence’s story. The simplicity of the framing encourages us to cling to her every word, until the tale is finished and we can decide for ourselves what the truth of the matter is. It’s not hard to become engrossed in Coly’s testimony, as Malanga gives an incredibly intense and emotionally powerful performance. 

The movie may be based on a real case, but Alice Diop goes out of her way to avoid just recreating an event that has already happened. She presents a fictionalised version of a person and puts us, and Rama, in the morally ambiguous position of trying to understand her and the reasoning behind her actions. The film delves into the character’s life and takes a harsh, unflinching look at the way women, mothers in particular, are treated and asks the uncomfortable question of whether Coly’s actions make sense given the circumstances.

Kayije Kagame as Rama and Salimata Kamate as Odile Diata in Saint Omer (directed by Alice Diop).

This leads to many long courtroom scenes. Although shot in a no-frills kind of way, the talented cast performances, the slow unveiling of the tale and the unreliability of those testifying is enough to hook and hold your interest. 

Laurence and Rama are strangers who’ve never met, but there’s a tense and unexpected connection created between the two in these scenes. As Rama observes Coly and sees similarities in their lives, Kayije Kagame creates a sense of a bond between them just with her facial expressions. The two actresses never once speak to each other, but they don’t need to in order to have the kind of tense chemistry you can feel in the air between them. 

Outside of the courtroom is where Saint Omer stumbles. The moments where Rama retreats to the safety of her hotel room are quiet, but full of worry. We’re shown the occasional flashback to her past to learn where her concerns are coming from, but the film doesn’t invest enough in Rama’s story to make us really feel for her. She’s consistently overshadowed by Coly, and there’s a considerable difference in the amount of time devoted to developing them. 

This doesn’t make the story overall any less compelling, though. Malanga and Kagame are supported by some smart performances from Valérie Dréville as The Judge and Aurélia Petit as Coly’s defence barrister. They each know when their performances should be quiet, inquisitive, authoritative or emotional. Petit has a particularly powerful and thought provoking monologue that leaves a lasting impression at the end of the film. 

It’s an assured feature debut from Diop. The director makes an extremely smart choice in keeping the technical things small so her actor’s performances can be big.  

Saint Omer is in UK cinemas on 3rd February.

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