Movie Review: As far as saddening dramas go, it’s hard to find a recent movie as thickly layered as Saint Omer, Alice Diop’s breakout movie that made awards season waves last season. It’s not the easiest movie to settle into for several reasons, but it will reward a patient viewer.
Saint Omer is the confident and meticulous breakthrough work of Alice Diop, as it’s her first to garner wide international attention and acclaim. Although some pundits were able to catch it at film festivals in the back half of last year, it finally hit theaters in January and is available to the general public on streaming services now, although I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that common moviegoers may struggle to stay locked into this courtroom drama.
And I frankly can’t ridicule and argue with that notion, because at times I felt the same way. Saint Omer commits to its slower, methodical pacing from the jump and demands the viewer to stay glued to the screen throughout – partially due to the language barrier that native English speakers will have with it (Saint Omer is a movie primarily spoken in French), but also because of the sensitive subject matter that it includes.
The movie follows a young novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame) and her attendance for the trial of a woman accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter by abandoning her to the rising tides on a beach in France. The woman, Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), has her entire life untangled in front of the courtroom – one filled with fear, maternal doubts, and a tumultuous family history.
As this story digs deeper and deeper into her past, we as a viewer are challenged to examine what could drive someone to commit an act like this, and whether people can become something they’re not explicitly because of the forces that surround them. It’s an entirely plausible and surreal idea to capture in this way, even if the stakes of Saint Omer feel too big for its own shoes.
I understand what Alice Diop is going for trying to bathe Saint Omer in a layer of ambiguity and moral complexity, but the crime that Laurence is accused of here rarely gets the necessary emphasis that it needs – because killing your own child is a truly heinous crime and I felt the movie spent most of its runtime trying to make excuses instead of building a weightier divide in opinions. The actual plot of the film occasionally crumbles because of this, and rarely does the filmmaking style or pacing do it any favors either.
Saint Omer is also occasionally suffocating due to the absence of visual motifs or eye-catching locations. This is understandable given that blockbuster-style, visually stunning imagery may feel off in a movie with these thematic ideas, but the film begins to teeter on being too dry for its own good. I don’t want to come out outright and say that Saint Omer is boring, because there are a few moments that jolt you up, they’re just too few and far between.
Perhaps when the movie gets most captivating is at the very end, when Diop drops in a monologue by Laurence’s defense attorney (a truly powerful performance by Aurelia Petit) that shakes the whole room alive and calls into question what the jury’s resolution will be. It’s a searing speech that calls out each of the significant players in Laurence’s life that seemed to neglect her and cause her the emotional scarring that she felt leading up to the events that put her in this place.
The whole movie is seen through Rama’s eyes, as she acts as the connective tissue between the trial and us as a viewer. Rama is revealed to also be pregnant, and perhaps the movie feels the most profound when she has time to reflect on her emotions after each day of the trial. Kayije Kagame has incredible screen presence and she’s able to convey so many different emotions throughout her short moments on screen.
Saint Omer isn’t always clicking for me, but there’s enough to chew on that makes it worth the while. At over two hours in length, it may be a tough ask for common viewers to sit through, but there’s an understandably weighty reflection of postpartum depression and those that cause emotional turmoil in one’s life.
Although maybe not in my collection of favorite films from 2023, Saint Omer is a notably mature and polished feature from writer and director Alice Diop, who I’ll be sure to check out future releases from. Hopefully her documentarian style will grow and morph just a bit, because she has the sensibility that could lead to many remarkable pieces.
Saint Omer is available to rent and own on VOD here
Saint Omer Movie Cast and Credits
Kayije Kagame as Rama
Guslagie Malanda as Laurence Coly
Aurelia Petit as Maitre Vaudenay
Valerie Dreville as La Presidente
Xavier Maly as Luc Dumontet
Director: Alice Diop
Cinematography: Claire Mathon
Editor: Amrita David
Saint Omer on Letterboxd
Saint Omer on IMDb