Saint Omer review — Courtroom drama turns audience into jurors

Directed by Alice Diop | Written by Diop, Amrita David, Zoé Galeron, and Marie N’Diaye | 122 min |  ▲▲▲▲△ | Carbon Arc Cinema 

It’s not a form that gets a whole lot of respect these days, especially since it was coopted by John Grisham in the 1990s. I’m talking about the courtroom drama, a subgenre of the thriller — the Hollywood model featuring scenes in court interspersed with investigations and revelations away from the gavel.

Documentarian Alice Diop has borrowed from a real-life court case for her first fictional drama, but approaches it like non-fiction — no excess, no melodrama, and time mostly spent there. She locks down her camera and shoots her cast in the centre of her frame, a good 75% of the film just that.

We’re watching a trial unfold through the eyes of writer Rama (Kayije Kagame). She’s first-generation French, her family from Senegal, she’s in a mixed-race relationship, and she’s pregnant. She’s hoping to use this trial — getting lots of coverage in the press — to inspire a book. The accused is Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), also originally from Senegal, who they say abandoned her baby in the surf, drowning her. She pleads not guilty, claiming sorcery played a role.

As Coly tells her story, she contradicts herself. She admits to lying, but then she says she doesn’t know what happened. She speaks with the confidence of a sociopath, but what becomes entirely clear is the chasm between the French system of justice and a deeper understanding of trauma. What’s implicit here is the deep cost of being separated from your culture and your people. The film does well to paint a portrait of loneliness and its relationship to mental health.

Small touches of style — light shimmering on a wall, dust hanging in the air, the gorgeous choral voices of Roomful of Teeth on the soundtrack — give the film a profound wallop juxtaposed with long stretches of matter-of-fact testimony. A selection of “Little Girl Blue,” from Nina Simone, another Black woman who immigrated to France, is powerfully and perfectly applied. Diop’s directorial decisions should floor you if the two key performances, from Kagame and Malanda, haven’t already.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.