In this extraordinary narrative debut by acclaimed documentarian Alice Diop, a young novelist is forced to confront her personal traumas as she observes the trial of a woman accused of infanticide.
For the past decade, award-winning documentarian Alice Diop has turned her camera on the injustices and intimate stories of immigrant communities on the peripheries of Paris in a meaningful act of recentring. With Saint Omer, her astonishing narrative feature debut, she brings her typical sensitivity and rigour to a story liberally adapted from a 2013 fait divers, in which a woman allegedly placed her 15-month-old daughter on a beach in northern France, abandoning her to the high tide.
This progressively claustrophobic courtroom drama is told through the stoic point of view of Rama (played with restrained intensity by a superb Kayije Kagame), a young novelist working on a contemporary retelling of the ancient Medea myth. Pregnant herself and increasingly uneasy, Rama’s own family history, doubts, and fears about motherhood are steadily dislodged as the life story of the accused woman, Laurence Coly (an extraordinary Guslagie Malanda), is gradually revealed. From a stern upbringing in Senegal to gradual isolation from family and society on her arrival in Europe, Coly’s experiences expose the traumas of racism and emotional manipulation that can remain unspoken while insidiously and irrevocably corroding a person’s well-being.
Co-written with critically acclaimed author Marie NDiaye (who also co-wrote TIFF 2009’s White Material with Claire Denis) and Diop’s editor Amrita David, and shot with precision and elegance by the great Claire Mathon, Saint Omer is gripping, affirming, and incendiary in its deconstruction of the continued violence forced upon Black women in French society. It’s also one of the most accomplished and important debuts in some time, certain to confirm Alice Diop’s talent on the international stage.
Content advisory: racism; themes of violence, anxiety, and mental distress