In their narrative-led debut, documentary director and filmmaker Alice Diop bases the stylistically reserved courtroom drama Saint Omer on the true-life 2016 case of Fabienne Kabou, a woman accused of killing her own child. The fictionalised character of Coly, a stand-in for Kabou, sets the precedence for the film and the intrigue: there is no question of the horrific killing of her child. Cody admits early she did indeed murder her daughter. Instead, Saint Omer’s composite is less the dispute of events, and more Coly’s recollection as she professes to not be the ’guilty party’.

Drawing on their previous experience as a documentary filmmaker, Diop instils a pursuit of the ‘truth’ in Saint Omer; or at the very least a grasp of how the restrained reality of the mundane can be more impactful than the graphic push for exploitation and spectacle. An emotionally distressing film, but with fathoms of intellectual stimulation, this narrative is built from authentic events, with flourishes of Medea. At its core, it explores motherhood, race, and a postcolonial France with a firm grip and sobering performances.

From the moment we see her in court, Guslagie Malanda is dressed to be unnoticed: Annie Melza Tiburce’s costuming is an absolute tour-de-force in studious design, paired with Anna Le Mouël’s art design for the film, and framed against Claire Mathon’s excruciatingly slow-driven cinematography. Malanda goes disregarded, the soft browns and muted tones bleeding directly into the mahogany of the French court. From the initial days, the trial melds into a homogenous blob of browns and dull tones. It works to reflect the authenticity of it all – refuting the true crime circus-show of revolving high-budget and graphic shows which has been capitalised on in recent years.

Coly is just a voice against an unrecognisable sea, and to the court she is invisible – except to budding writer Rama (Kayije Kagame). The brilliance in Amrita David and Diop’s screenplay is the numerous ways to read into this: commentary on her immigrant background, her race, her position as a mother – it all aligns with whichever poison the audience chooses.

And it sets off magnificently against Malanda’s captivating, though withdrawn performance. The control demonstrated is unlike the usual farce of the courtroom drama. There are no grand explosives or emotional outbursts. Logic and patience is the master of this room, Malanda’s quiet resolve, with one tiny smirk toward co-star Kayije Kagame (turning in a perfect surrogate performance for the audience within the narrative) being the only real reward the audience receives for their investment. For some, this communicates everything Diop’s film can achieve without sullying the intent. For others, it is likely to disappoint.

The focus is for the audience to train themselves to listen. To wait. The editing and pacing are glacial, just like a genuine court case. There are no snap-cuts to deliver big moments, the slow and drawn-out camera shots present the narrative with intense pauses to push as much weight as possible into the revelations which steadily unfold.

Saint Omer makes its mark with a silent gut punch. It doesn’t announce or postulate: it’s unusually quiet in its treatment of the genre. And even when in the bustle of the courtroom, or the rare scene outside of this room – be it an apartment or a classroom, the women of this film are strikingly alone: reverberating the largely absent nature of sound this film pursues. Diop’s background in documentary filmmaking strips back their narrative film to the bones and manages to distract audiences and through their proxy, Rama, that their fascination with true crime causes them to forget the very reason we’re here: the murder of an eleven-year-old girl. 

Screening in cinemas nationwide from Fri 3 Feb 2023