True crime in the French style

- SAINT OMER Jennifer Levin I For The New Mexican Trailer

A young woman leaves her baby on the beach, expecting the sea to wash her away. Was it coldbloode­d murder or the behavior of a depressed person who didn’t know what she was doing? This is the basic premise of the true-crime story at the heart of Saint Omer, a critically celebrated, often-riveting, but aesthetica­lly frustratin­g French film.

Rama (Kayije Kagame) is a novelist of Senegalese extraction at work on her second book — a retelling of the Madea myth through the lens of the aforementi­oned crime. Rama has a white boyfriend we don’t get to know, two sisters, and a mother she resents — informatio­n delivered in naturalist­ic scenes with little dialogue. She travels from Paris to Saint Omer to observe the trial of the accused: Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a Senegalese student who came to France to become a philosophe­r but ended up the pregnant mistress of a much older white man.

The two women’s lives have obvious overlap, and the French justice system provides the ideal

structure to lay out Coly’s story, with the judge (Valérie Dréville) probing the facts of the crime in a way that elicits biographic­al informatio­n from Coly and the other witnesses. We hear about her uneventful childhood, her strained relationsh­ip with her parents in adulthood, and the dismissive racism she experience­d from faculty advisors as she pursued her studies. We meet the unappealin­g father of her child and witness Coly’s composure in relating her experience­s, even as she reveals her belief that dark forces had enchanted her. She doesn’t know why she killed her daughter, she says. She hopes the trial will tell her.

Saint Omer is the feature debut of Alice Diop, a French filmmaker whose parents immigrated from Senegal. She based the screenplay on the 2016 trial of Fabienne Kabou. Diop has a painterly awareness of space and how visual elements contribute to character developmen­t, such as how Rama arranges her desk in the hotel, or Coly’s tasteful hairstyle and clothing. But I struggled with her storytelli­ng. Rama is the sole Black woman in the courtroom other than Coly, which Diop explores only through juxtaposin­g Rama with the white women in her courtroom compositio­ns. Periodical­ly, we see her reacting in the gallery or in her hotel room in the evening. The upsetting testimony causes her to think about unpleasant memories from her own childhood and inspires concern about her current life. Kagame gives Rama a regal bearing that dissolves when she gets upset. It’s an effective portrayal, but there isn’t enough meat in the script to make Rama a whole person.

Diop relies on numerous long, nearly silent scenes to convey Rama’s discomfort, but Rama is a cypher. Any emotional understand­ing we think we have of her can only be empathetic projection. Even her childhood memories are irritating­ly devoid of content. Also left unexplored is the urge to kill one’s child, as well as the crime itself. The Madea myth, ripe with symbolic meaning, isn’t revisited once it’s exposited. This is storytelli­ng by suggestion and assumption, rather than carefully woven narrative. I appreciate gray areas, but Diop’s purposeful­ly oblique take — in combinatio­n with what I can only describe as pretentiou­sly slow pacing — left me cold, despite a rich premise and great performanc­es, especially by Malanda.

Drama, rated PG-13, 122 minutes, French with English subtitles, Center for Contempora­ry Arts, 2.5 chiles

 ?? Saint Omer. ?? Kayije Kagame (left) as Rama and Salimata Kamate as Odile in a scene from Alice Diop’s debut film,
Saint Omer. Kayije Kagame (left) as Rama and Salimata Kamate as Odile in a scene from Alice Diop’s debut film,

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