Review: Based on a Murder Trial that Gripped France, Saint Omer Elicits Empathy

In Saint Omer, filmmaker Alice Diop applies her documentary skills to her first narrative film, based on an actual event that gripped France in 2016. Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a young Senegalese immigrant, is accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter by leaving her on the beach at night to be drowned by the tide. Diop uses transcripts from the hearings on the French culture. Most of the film takes place in the claustrophobic courtroom in Saint Omer, a town in northeastern France.

The parallel story in Saint Omer is that of Rama (Kayije Kagame), a Senegalese-French professor and writer who’s working on a modern-day adaptation of the Medea myth; she comes to Saint Omer to see the trial as part of the research for her project. Rama’s character is based on the filmmaker herself, who attended the Coly trial.

Malanda’s performance as Laurence is calm and steadfast; she is a cipher. We don’t know whether to believe her or despise her. The film incorporates scenes of the two women as children with their own mothers. Ultimately, we can empathize with both of them. The camera’s frequent and extended closeups of the women’s faces during the courtroom proceedings emphasize the dramas they both are experiencing.

In a beautiful coda to the film, Nina Simone’s iconic “Little Girl Blue,” the Rodgers and Hart song from Simone’s 1959 album, plays as the film ends and credits roll.

Saint Omer is playing in theaters. The film is France’s official selection for this year’s Academy Awards,

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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