Roger Ebert as soon as famously likened the films to “a machine that generates empathy.” It’s a formulation I’ve by no means totally been capable of swallow, for causes which have much less to do with Ebert’s particular perception than with its reductive, ad-nauseam recycling by different critics and moviegoers.
Significant empathy, typically assumed to be cinema’s pure area, can’t be operated like an ignition swap; it isn’t easy, and it isn’t routinely generative. It has no use for pandering and no endurance with an viewers’s laziness. It requires time, focus and a refined, molecular-level realignment of views. The typical film insists on making its characters really feel seen with out first doing the fundamental work of trying and listening, or demanding that the viewer do the identical.
The extraordinary new French drama “Saint Omer” just isn’t a median film in any sense. For lengthy, spellbinding stretches, it compels you to look upon the face and determine of Laurence Coly, a younger lady on trial within the homicide of her toddler daughter. Standing for many of the proceedings and talking with dispassionate calm, she holds you with each phrase of her lucid, managed and horrifying testimony, and likewise along with her faintly regal bearing, the combo of resignation and defiance at play in her gaze. Even so, you possibly can’t assist however discover that she typically appears on the verge of vanishing — an impact heightened by her uncanny stillness and her brown-colored shirt, all however blurring into the courtroom’s wood-paneled partitions.
Laurence’s unusual powers of near-invisibility, as incarnated by an astonishing newcomer named Guslagie Malanda, are very a lot to the film’s level. Written and directed by Alice Diop, a French documentarian making a stunner of a story debut, “Saint Omer” probes the mysteries of the seen and the unseen.
Earlier than she deserted her 15-month-old baby, Elise, on a seaside within the city of Berck-sur-Mer, Laurence — a Senegalese-born immigrant — moved by means of life just about unnoticed and unknown. Elise, fathered by a married older white man, was stifled like a secret, together with Laurence’s personal wants and needs. Her fateful actions ensured that the world would see her eventually, although whether or not it might start to grasp her is one other matter.
Laurence doesn’t appear to need understanding, not less than not from others: “A woman who has killed her baby can’t really expect any sympathy,” she notes.
However this supremely clever and haunting film, a significant prizewinner eventually yr’s Venice Worldwide Movie Competition and a shortlisted Oscar contender for finest worldwide characteristic, may be very a lot an try to reckon along with her and with actions typically branded with the cliché of “unthinkable.”
With exceptional stealth and focus, Diop rewires the generic circuitry of the courtroom drama, avoiding its pure inclination towards sensationalism and grandstanding. She additionally preserves, by means of a seamless meld of fiction and nonfiction, the contours and complexities of a horrible true story.
The script (which Diop wrote along with her editor, Amrita David, and Marie Ndiaye) attracts closely on courtroom transcripts from the trial of Fabienne Kabou, who in 2016 acquired a 20-year jail sentence for drowning her child. Laurence’s account hews carefully to Kabou’s, all the way down to the element during which she admits the crime however insists sorcery was responsible.
As Laurence testifies, she speaks of her time in France as considered one of gradual, systemic and complete abandonment: by her estranged mother and father, who noticed her solely by way of her tutorial potential; by her lover, Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly), who saved her and their child hidden from his personal spouse and household; and by a society detached to essentially the most weak people in its midst.
Diop attended Kabou’s trial, and right here she bequeaths her perspective to an outdoor observer named Rama (an outstanding Kayije Kagame), a author and professor who’s researching a brand new work primarily based on Laurence’s case. Rama spies a thematic connection to Medea, which may very well be significant if not, per her writer, terribly marketable. However what she discovers, after arriving within the city of St.-Omer and taking her place within the courtroom, is one thing way more intimate and scary than mythology: recognition. She seems at Laurence — like her, a Black Frenchwoman of Senegalese descent — and sees a grim future that may, underneath barely completely different circumstances, have mirrored her personal.
Like Rama, Laurence steeped herself in language and the humanities, one thing that turns into clear when she describes her time as a philosophy scholar, or when she speaks in what media reviews describe as a uniquely formal, heightened model of French. (Even so, would this distinction name as a lot consideration coming from a white individual? For that matter, would anybody query Laurence’s choice to jot down a thesis on Wittgenstein if she weren’t African-born — and subsequently, as one dullard implies, incapable of grappling with the complexities of Western thought?)
The echoes go deeper: As we’ve seen from the early establishing scenes, Rama is anticipating a toddler along with her white accomplice, Adrien (Thomas de Pourquery). And Rama additionally bears the wound of a tough mother-daughter relationship, one which has instilled in her an ambivalence and anxiousness about her personal impending motherhood.
The brilliance of those courtroom scenes — etched in crystalline, hyper-observant lengthy takes by very good cinematographer Claire Mathon (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Atlantics”) and fantastically pieced collectively by David — is how they draw you into seeing what Rama sees, with out her uttering a lot as a phrase. She sits in strained, watchful silence, the movie registering each constriction of her throat and each tensing of her muscular tissues as she listens to Laurence’s testimony.
The defendant’s invocations of witchcraft could also be a cynical lie, however at occasions, a supernatural act of possession actually does appear to be transpiring between the 2 girls. It’s as if Rama has transferred her voice to Laurence, who, even whereas telling solely her story, appears to talk for them each.
Is Rama the protagonist, or is Laurence? “Saint Omer” has little curiosity in answering that query: It’s a film about the issue of identification, the trouble it takes to truly see each particular person because the protagonist of their very own particular, unknowable story.
Diop’s visible selections frequently reinforce this concept, notably within the consideration her digital camera lavishes on the opposite essential figures within the courtroom: the decide (Valérie Dréville), at all times tempering her shock at Laurence’s testimony with understated kindness; the protection counsel (Aurélia Petit), skillfully underplaying the film’s one dramatic summation; Laurence’s mom (Salimata Kamate), clinging stubbornly to satisfaction even within the face of her daughter’s public humiliation; and particularly the trembling, dissembling Luc, registering his personal shock at Laurence’s devastating actions.
Did Laurence shut Luc out, or did he shut her and Elise away? “Saint Omer” grants each prospects their weight, at the same time as a extra expansive third narrative — one which encompasses ugly truths about women and men, privilege and energy, whiteness, Blackness and the French colonialist mind-set — silently coalesces within the areas between testimonies. A couple of particular person within the courtroom is unquestionably perceptive sufficient to choose up on that narrative. Nonetheless, it’s clear that nobody within the room understands it as acutely or feels it as viscerally as Rama does, particularly within the transient, transfixing second when she and the defendant lastly lock gazes for the primary time.
That second of connection hits you within the intestine, and likewise in Rama’s; in Kagame’s very good efficiency, it appears to reverberate within the quickening thrum of her pulse, and within the life starting to take form in her womb. The way forward for that baby is considered one of many issues “Saint Omer” leaves unresolved, nonetheless struggling and ready — like the brand new, extra equal world that Diop permits us to think about — to be born.
In French with English subtitles
Operating time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Enjoying: Begins Jan. 13 typically launch