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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
In the French courtroom drama Saint Omer, set in the small town of the same name, a young Senegalese woman stands trial for killing her 15-month-old daughter. Guslagie Malanda plays Laurence, the film's tragic central figure, who is mostly confined to sitting in a small wooden dock, and is framed in various frontal mid shots. Her conservative sweater, which is almost the same hue as the court's tawny brown wood panelling, gives the impression she's being smothered by her surroundings.
Laurence speaks in a soft voice, with barely a hint of emotion, and has the cultivated vocabulary of someone who came to France to study philosophy. But she seems as bewildered by her crime as the court. When asked why she killed her daughter, by leaving her on a beach at night to be swept away by the rising tide, she replies, "I hope this trial will give me the answer," then offers a bizarre hypothesis: She is the victim of a curse.
Senegalese French writer-director Alice Diop, who has a background in documentary, was inspired by a real-life trial she attended as a public observer in 2016.The case caused a sensation across France, fanning anxieties about multiculturalism and whether migrants were capable of integrating into French life. Here was a woman who spoke sophisticated French, who professed an admiration for Western culture and rational thought, blaming her crime on witchcraft.
In depicting the accused woman with marked restraint, both in terms of performance and camera work, she paints a baffling, practically inscrutable figure. But she frames the story with her own experience as a courtroom observer, and in the process makes room for a multifaceted exploration of migrant alienation.