Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 18, 2023 9:51 pm 
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Mati Diop's impressive but frustrating first fiction feature arouses more questions than it answers

Saint Omer - well known 41-year-old Senegalese-French documentary filmmaker Mati Diop's first fiction feature - is drably titled: it's only the name of the town where the trial takes place. This is a minimalist kind of courtroom drama film. It presents only a handful of witnesses. Most of the talking is done by the judge, the defendant, and the defense lawyer. Most oddly, little light is shed upon the crime. Is this a trial at all? The defendant has already fully confessed to her premeditated crime of going from Paris to a small town and leaving her 15-month-old daughter on the beach to drown in the rising tide. Nonetheless in its patience-straining way, Saint Omer is riveting courtroom stuff. And then it frustrates us at the end by delivering a message but not a decision. Mati Diop is a tease. Did she learn from Claire Denis, a master of vivid withholding, while playing a major role in Denis' 35 Shots of Rum?

This film is maddening and irritating, yet has been heralded as innovative. It draws attention especially in its introduction of a central character, Rama (Kayije Kagame) who comes to observe, not participate, a teacher and successful novelist attending the trial with the intention of making it into her next novel (a publisher is lined up). She is a powerful figure (and Kagame has a dark, strong, intense presence) who is no less effective through being largely silent in some of the key shots of her. Rama is the audience representative and the stand-in for Mati Diop, the filmmaker, who attended the actual trial of Fabienne Kabou for infanticide on which Saint Omer is based. Skillful use is made of silent images of Rama, whose reactions - and identification - are intense. She connects with the accused's mother Odile Diatta (Salimata Kamate), meeting with her during the trial and lunching with her. All this is like Truman Capote being a major character of In Cold Blood. It's the much later legacy of the Me Journalism of the Seventies, I guess. At the outset of the trial, the judge orders all "journalists" to leave the courtroom. I kept wondering, why is a novelist planning a book and (as we see later) recording the proceedings on her smart phone, not excluded?

Even though, or rather because, she remains mysterious - most of all to herself - the accused Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) remains the main character. Malanda, though as is noted is "invisible" and even is dressed and lit to seem to "disappear" into the background of the wood paneling behind her in the courtroom, speaks in a quiet, assured (even while expressing uncertainty, not knowing), holds our attention. Who is she, what is she? She has claimed sorcery and spells are behind her act. But the defense says she is deranged and needs treatment, not punishment. Much prior evidence emerging in what appears only to be part of her recorded testimony emphasizes that she is a habitual liar. Even she acknowledges this.

Arguably too much is made of Rama. As Anthony Lane notes in his New Yorker review, Laurence would have been interesting enough by herself. There is something naïve and factitious about showing Rama lecturing on Marguerite Duras and the passage in her script for Hiroshima Mon Amour elevating French women humiliated for having Nazi/German lovers to semi-martyr status, and watching Maria Callas as Medea in Pasolini's film, lifting child murder to the level of myth. Mati Diop's intense reaction to the trial, leading to this fiction, or fictionalized, film is explained by her actual multiple points of similarity with the accused: she too of Senegalese, mixed-race descent with a white boyfriend, and pregnant to boot. (In real life she reportedly had a small child, but making the child still in Rama's womb and her having nausea and discomfort adds a creepier, scarier note.)

What's interesting - what will be remembered about this film - is the mysteriousness and illogic or Laurance's answers to questions in the trial. She says early on she doesn't know why she murdered her child but hopes the trial will show her. She's smart, we're told, and speaks elegant French - though noting the latter too much, given that she's from Dakar, Senegal, will be taken as condescending, like the university prof. who testifies he advised her not to do a thesis on Wittgenstein but something more appropriate to her "culture."

A. lot of Laurence's testimony seems to be closely drawn from the actual Fabienne Kabou trial, but it seems calculated to make her even more puzzling than the original was. A 2016 Le Monde article about the final sentencing describes Fabienne: "One expected a woman drowned in solitude, abandoned to her torments of mother under the indifferent glance of her companion; one saw appearing a tough, authoritarian, deceitful and lying accused." Of her much older white companion, father of the baby, Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly) in the film, the article says he "was seen at the beginning of the hearing as morally guilty and ... turned out to be the exact opposite of the portrait that had been drawn up[;] everyone had the feeling of having been deceived, betrayed by the accused." If this is true, this not the impression of the two the film leaves us with.

But the major point/criticism to be made is that Diop doesn't show us the results of the actual trial at all. You will learn from news stories that the defendant was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, lowered to fifteen at appeal. All we get is the impassioned (and fanciful) summing up of the defense, Maître Vaudenay (Aurélia Petit). There is no summing up of the prosecution (Robert Cantarella), and no decision from the red-robed judge (Valérie Dréville) .

We have been held riveted for two hours, riveted and uncomfortable, and then we have been cheated. Is this a "new, innovative" variation on a trial movie or a perversion of one? Does Diop consider the French court system a racist, colonialist travesty? But that could be a dangerous assumption. Maybe you should see the film and decide for yourself, though.

See also Armand White's erudite, detailed rebuttal of the film in National Review.

Saint Omer, 122 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 7, 2022, and was included in over two dozen international festivals including Toronto, New York, Busan and Vienna. French theatrical release Nov. 23, 2022. AllCiné press rating 4.2f (82%). US limited release Jan. 13, 2023. Screened for this review at AMC Bay Street Jan. 18, 2023. (Metacritic rating 90%).

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