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Saint Omer

Director: Alice Diop (France). Year of Release: 2022

A black woman is walking slowly, holding something closely to her chest. It is dark, and the camera is tightly focused on her, but we hear waves crashing in the distance. Suddenly the picture dissolves and we see another black woman waking up with a jump next to her white partner. The figure in Rama is dream is not her mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship, but when she cried out in her sleep it was for mum.

In the opening scenes of Saint Omer, we see Rama several times – teaching a class on Marguerite Duras and Hiroshima Mon Amour, or at a family dinner where Adrien, her partner, tells of a concert his band played recently, where the audience sang Happy Birthday To You to the bass player. When asked what they’re doing over Summer, Adrien says they have to do up the house. Rama glares at him and quickly changes the subject Later we learn that she is 4 months pregnant.

This is all leading up to a court case which Rama is to attend as part of the research for a book which she is writing based on Medea. We all know the story of Medea, right? Well, in case we don’t (and I had to remind myself), it’s about a women who murders her own sons. The trial is of Laurence, a Senegalese migrant who took her 15 month old daughter to the beach and left her to be engulfed by the sea – just like Rama’s dream at the beginning of the film.

Things are not helped by the trial being in the very white town of Saint Omer. During the initial negotiations for jury members, the prosecution immediately rejects a potential juror with an Arab name. In the courtroom, and in town when the trial has stopped for the day, Rama and Laurence stick out like sore thumbs. Laurence’s much older husband is white, and their testimonies in court of how they perceived their life together are noticeably different.

Laurence is an educated articulate woman, although you wouldn’t think so by the way she is treated by just about everyone in the courtroom. Laurence defied her father by switching a law degree for one in Philosophy. The lawyers cannot understand why she specialised in an Austrian Philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein rather than one “from her own culture”. One for the irony fans: Wittgenstein’s is famous for saying: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.

It doesn’t just stop at Wittgenstein. When the lawyers talk about Laurence, they make passing references to Female Genital Mutilation, as if this were a common experience of all African women. When a clearly mentally disturbed Laurence says that she is the victim of witchcraft, they find this much easier to believe than any interest in Wittgenstein. In court, Laurence says “Even a stupid person would not do what I did.” The lawyers disagree. They also think that she’s stupid.

Saint Omer is not an easy watch, and not just because of the harrowing subject matter. The court setting makes it quite dialogue heavy, with several scenes of prosecutors or the defendant talking and talking. And it is not always easy to be sure what exactly is going on, if you’re not paying close attention. But this is also a film which deserves a little extra effort from its audience. The film throws all sorts of important references to us and we are just expected to keep up.

I left the cinema today, not being clear what I thought of Saint Omer. I mean, I knew it was a very serious film, but wasn’t really sure whether it was Any Good, let along great. The more I think and read about it, the more I think that it’s definitely the former, and I want to see it again, to check whether it’s the latter. One thing which contributes towards this was an interview with director Alice Diop where she says that she could not understand the woman on whom Laurence is based.

This statement is more profound that it originally feels. It is, in a sense, the direct opposite opinion to that of conspiracy theorists who replace one supposed truth with another one of their own choosing. Diop is saying, instead, that there are more things in heaven and Earth, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Some things are just inexplicable, either because we lack the necessary knowledge, or we don’t have access to the method in which we could find out.

So Laurence could be mad, she could be possessed by daemons, she could be plain evil. Maybe she is all or none of the above. But we literally don’t know, and have to live in a world in which we are possessed by this lack of knowledge (to those who would say, but Laurence is a fictional character, and what she is and believes is exactly what the author decides it is. That’s as maybe, but she is based on a real-life character for whom the same inexplicables apply).

This does not mean that Saint Omer is a post-modern film which tells us that anything goes and all truths are equally valid. For at the same time as telling us that we live in a racist society in which some people are judged differently to others. The real life experiences of Rama and Laurence are simply different to those of their white, male colleagues. You may complain that the film doesn’t talk enough about class, but it can’t do everything, can it?

Saint Omer refuses to provide us with a pat ending where all loose threads are neatly tied up. This is a Good Thing. It is slightly rare among films in that it treats its audience as rational beings with the ability to make their own judgements. And it has a rare sensitivity for race and gender. This is a film that makes us work, but the work may well be worth it.

Second Viewing – March 2023

I first saw Saint Omer at a press showing 7 or 8 weeks ago. At the time I said “I thought it was ok. Then I thought about it a bit more, and thought it might just be good, Now I want to see it again and see if the hidden depths don’t pass me by next time round.” Having watched it again, I must say that although, yes this is most definitely a good film, I’m still not quite decided exactly how good I found it.

Let’s start with the indubitably good bits. This is a film with admirable ambition. It does not just take on the political questions such as the racism and sexism experienced by its main protagonists, but also the isolation which results from this. It is not that they are lonely – Rama especially seems to live a full an interesting life – but it is a life which is led according to different rules as those of her non-black, non-female contemporaries.

This is not just because of racism and sexism, although of course both play a significant role. There is a scene when Rama is on the phone to her agent, who tells her that the publishers want to change the title as not everyone will get the allusion to Medea. “But everyone knows the story of Medea, don’t they?” she asks. She cannot envisage people lacking this knowledge, even though you’d guess that few of the film’s characters could tell you what happens to Medea.

Laurence has similar problems – she has a different vision of the world to her interrogators. To an extent, you can compare the film to Camus’s L’Etranger. Like Meursault, Laurence is being judged according to a series of rules which she doesn’t recognise. This lack of mutual comprehension is picked up by Laurence’s (female) lawyer in her closing speech when she points out that if the court case restricts itself to simple guilt and innocence, It is slightly missing the point.

So, there’s a lot to get your teeth into here, and you don’t have to be overly pretentious to make a meal of it (though maybe it helps). So do please go and make your own mind up. But there were many parts of Saint Omer that made me respect it, but find it very difficult to love it. This is a film you can admire without necessarily enjoying it much. It was too cold, too clinical. Quite often it felt more like an intellectual exercise than something which really engaged me.

This sense is heightened that a significant amount of the film takes place in court. Much of the time we are listening to what are essentially monologues by the judge, the lawyers, or the people who they are interrogating. This can make for good drama and certainly contains a number of eloquent speeches, but there is little social interaction. What we are watching is people speaking at each other, not really communicating with one another.

The world of cinema would be much less interesting without films like Saint Omer. It’s great to watch a film which challenges your intelligence as well as taking on social issues. At the same time, this is not the sort of film I’d necessarily want to watch all the time. Something that’s good for a once in a while experience while your brain is feeling up to it, but not necessarily an entertaining night out. But who needs entertainment?

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