Alice Diop’s​ film Saint Omer is a work of fiction, but close, in various ways, to her documentary Danton’s Death (2011), a study of a Black man from the Paris suburbs who spends three years at the Cours Simon, a drama school not far from Père Lachaise cemetery. In both films there are intense close-ups of faces, and Diop often allows these and other frames to linger longer than they need to for informational purposes – as if we might glimpse a genuine secret or two if we keep looking. There are recurring shots from trains, with city or countryside speeding by through the window. These look like bits of scene-setting, but in context they carry a clear thematic message. They bring us, in Danton’s Death, from the suburbs to the boulevards and back; in the new film, from Paris to Saint Omer, a small town in the Pas-de-Calais. The passing views suggest, among other things, that places travel while we sit still, a minor, mundane version of what happens in the major cultural journeys in these films, from Africa to what their characters keep calling the West.

There are some throwaway lines in both films that would be funny if they didn’t reveal so much about us. Steve, the object of study in Danton’s Death, is told he can’t have the leading part in Georg Büchner’s play of that name because ‘there weren’t any Blacks at that time.’ In Saint Omer, a white professor expresses surprise that a philosophy student from Dakar should be interested in Wittgenstein rather than a subject ‘closer to her culture’. Danton’s Death offers a remarkable (temporary) solution to racial problems of this kind. Steve brings the house down in a stage version of Driving Miss Daisy and then recites a famous speech about freedom by the real Danton.

Another element that carries well from documentary to fiction is Diop’s patience with and openness to her characters’ distress. They can be funny and relaxed, but we also spend a lot of time on their doubts and anxieties. Steve says he doesn’t live in the same world as other people, and tends to blame himself for everything: ‘C’est moi le problème.’ In Saint Omer these darker moods define most of the characters; we watch them worry about what they can’t discuss and perhaps don’t understand. This intimate, silent distance serves as a contrast to the main action of the movie, which is set in a verbose courtroom, where almost everyone is far too articulate – as if life weren’t so much a case to be resolved as an analytical parade.

Saint Omer opens with a sequence that may be a dream, if we attribute its imagery to Rama (Kayije Kagame), one of the film’s two leading characters. She is a writer and lecturer who takes a train to sit in on a court case that she hopes will provide material for her next novel. Or if we don’t assign the vision to anyone, the scene is a sort of epigraph, a preview of the film’s subject. We hear sounds but see nothing, only a dark screen. As we begin to identify the sounds as those of waves crashing on a beach, a woman appears carrying a child. She is half-turned from us, and we see only a portion of her profile. We get the sense that this may be a dream because the film then cuts directly to a woman in bed, waking up to be comforted by her male companion (Thomas de Pourquery). He tells her that she has been saying ‘Mother, Mother’, which relates to the right realm of trouble, but not really to what we have just seen. The film’s story, based on a real event, is about a mother who left her 15-month-old child lying on a beach to be swept away by the waves.

In one sense, nothing much happens in the film. Rama has a plan for her new novel, a version of the story of Medea, and we see her watching the relevant scenes from Pasolini’s film of that name. Earlier we attend a lecture she gives on Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras’s Hiroshima mon amour, where she says that its mode is not realism but a ‘sublimation of the real’. This is all intelligent, interesting stuff but comes to seem too clear and too abstract to Rama, lost among the pain and disorder of the analogies between her own life – she is four months pregnant; she has a long history of trouble with her mother – and that of the woman on trial for child murder. There is a wonderful moment where she says to her partner: ‘I’m afraid of being like her,’ and we think immediately of Laurence, the woman on trial. ‘Like who?’ her partner asks; ‘My mother,’ Rama replies.

Diop loves these reallocations of focus and we could say that stylistically they define the film, which is full of moments in which the person we see on screen is not the person who is talking or even the topic of discussion. When Laurence’s partner, Luc (Xavier Maly), gives testimony, the camera stays on Laurence, then cuts to Rama in the gallery, while the judge keeps talking in the background. For a moment, we think we might not see Luc at all. Finally the camera turns to him: he is a 57-year-old man who looks about a hundred.

An even more striking sequence of this kind appears earlier in the film when the judge (Valérie Dréville) and Laurence (Guslagie Malanda) seem to say and perhaps indeed have said everything that can usefully be said. ‘You have to explain yourself,’ the judge insists. The camera then moves directly to Rama, not Laurence. Of course. She is the one who is going to explain – or sublimate.

Laurence is not denying that she left her child on the beach to die, but is pleading not guilty. In an earlier statement, she explains that she had ‘embarked on a tragic and odious enterprise’ – the second adjective is ‘immonde’, literally meaning, I guess, ‘not fit for the human world’. Now the judge asks: ‘Do you know why you killed your daughter?’ ‘I don’t know,’ Laurence says. ‘I hoped this trial could teach me.’ She says this with what seems to me great dignity and directness, but the prosecuting lawyer thinks she is lying, acting like a cynical and over-educated ex-colonial subject. Then comes the difficult moment, where the conversation should end but doesn’t. ‘I’m not sure I was the one really responsible in this affair,’ Laurence says. She goes on to talk about her partner, about witchcraft, about curses cast by her family in Africa, but she also adds something else, in a different idiom, more rational but also more helpless. The two years before the child was born, she says, were ‘the worst years of my life’. The judge and the public are waiting for more, but that is all Laurence offers.

In keeping with the sense of nothing much happening in the film, we don’t hear the court’s verdict, or even the prosecutor’s concluding remarks, just the closing statement of Laurence’s defence lawyer (Aurélia Petit), in which she eloquently pleads that her client is mad. To find her guilty, she says, would be to decide that Laurence is a monster – ‘It is more convenient to see her as a monster’ – and such a decision would be a verdict but would not be justice (‘un arrêt, mais pas la justice’). Throughout the speech the lawyer has been addressing us rather than the courtroom, talking directly into the camera, with no fictional set or other people anywhere in view. Then her own discourse slips back into monster talk. She talks of mothers and children, born and unborn, exchanging cells that scientists call ‘chimerical’. ‘We women are all monsters, but terribly human monsters.’ Laurence is crying, and the lawyer turns to hold her.

This seems an appropriately sentimental ending, though ‘madness’ seems an evasion rather than a resolution, and we might go back to the judge’s insistence on explanation. What if we can’t explain? That, I think, is one of the strongest suggestions of Laurence’s posture and language in Malanda’s amazing performance. We can do things, terrible things, that we don’t understand, and madness or sorcery or legal guilt might just be names for what we don’t know. What if Laurence wanted to save her child from life itself? This wouldn’t mean she shouldn’t be tried, but it might damage our confidence about making a verdict.

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