French Oscar Contender ‘Saint Omer’ Finds Director Alice Diop Making History: ‘I Want to Cry’
Alice Diop wasn’t feeling well. “Excuse me,” she said, in the midst of an interview in a Soho hotel last week, and promptly left the room before returning a few minutes later. “I’m sorry,” she said, sitting back down and rubbing her temples. “Talking about this film all the time is heavy.”
Diop was at the tail end of the promotional tour for “ Saint Omer ,” the 43-year-old filmmaker’s searing and insightful look at race and class tensions in modern-day France. For months, she has been under constant pressure to explain herself. As the director of France’s official Oscar submission, she’s the first Black woman to represent her country in its quest for that award, with a movie that forces big, thorny discussions that have worn her down.
“I’m so exhausted,” she said, speaking through a translator, who fought to keep up with her detailed responses. “The power of what I have to say about this film is impacting my body. I want to cry.”
Diop, who won the best debut feature at Venice this fall, has been making complex sociopolitical documentaries for nearly 15 years. “Saint Omer” is her narrative debut, but it nevertheless demonstrates her deep familiarity with cinematic form. “This movie allowed me to work on the questions I’d been working on with all my films,” she said. “When I realized I could do that, I knew that this film could only be possible in the fictional space.”
That’s partly because “Saint Omer” draws from real-life events while digging inside them to find deeper truths. The movie is based on the real court case of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese native who was convicted of drowning her daughter in 2013 and blamed “witchcraft” as her defense. Diop observed Kabou’s court case at the time and wove her experiences into a script many years later.
“When I went to the courtroom I had no idea there would be a film,” Diop said. “The film came after the fact when I understood that the story had moved me so much — and that it had moved so many other women as well. I understood this story could be an extension of the very reason for which I make films — to show the complexities of being a Black woman.”
The final product follows young novelist and Marguerite Duras expert Rama (Kayjie Kagame), who grows obsessed with the court case of African woman Laurence (Guslagie Malanda) after she’s accused of matricide in the northern French city of the title. Initially intrigued by the defendant’s testimony for a new book project retelling the Madea myth, Rama eventually experienced more profound effects from listening to Laurence recount her devastating experiences.
Lengthy passages of the movie unfold in the courtroom, as Malanda delivers astounding monologues that chronicle the abuse Laurence faces in a white society, not so much denying her crime as putting in context. Rama, a future mother herself, can’t help but feel compassion for the woman — and with it, a simmering resentment for the system that surrounds her. The movie’s complex visual design yields an experiential thriller with a polemical edge.
“The fact that we have here a Black woman being looked at by all these white French people in a small, provincial town is a highly symbolic, political thing,” Diop said. “A court is a place where the entire society is called up.”
The project called for a daring actress to play the accused woman, someone willing to grapple with the lengthy dialogue passages that bore a closer resemblance to Frederick Wiseman’s immersive, world-building documentaries than anything in the conventional narrative. Diop drew on her documentary background to grasp that the role called for someone as far removed from the artifice of performance as possible. In that regard, Malanda fit the bill.
Though she hadn’t acted in seven years, the 30-year-old actress was a longtime friend of Diop’s who had been working as a curator when the role came up, and could grasp the intellectual demands of it. “I was a bit afraid because a lot of people told me there would be this kind of weird voyeurism to it,” said Malanda, who joined Diop at the hotel for her interview. “But the story was very important in France and a lot of people are just overwhelmed by this character.”
Malanda eschewed working with a traditional acting coach in favor of a Tai Chi master. “It was much more about getting inside the words, the breathes,” she said. “We breath not only with our lungs but with our head, our breast. Alice had this really sculptural approach to the body.”
The unspoken dynamic that unfolds between Laurence and Rama in the courtroom — including one eerie glance followed up by a smile — speaks volumes about the nature of racial tensions in France that continue to lack the scrutiny they have received in other parts of the world. That has yielded a complicated life for the movie in its home country, despite the Oscar submission. “It’s been very intense,” Diop said. “I’m still trying to understand what the reception in France tells us about where we’re at in France as a society and where we’re at in France with cinema.”
She noticed racial undertones to critiques of the movie. “Overall, the French reviews have been extremely positive, but the criticism tends to be addressed not so much to the film, but to me, as a Black woman who is an intellectual filmmaker,” she said. “As if there is something arrogant or pretentious about a Black woman citing Marguerite Duras or Pasolini. I think in the United States, a Black woman citing Duras, I think that’s something accepted. Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize winner. Whereas I think in France, it’s much more complicated.”
Diop said she felt these pressures in the midst of making the movie as she contemplated the kind of pushback she might receive for it. She fainted on the final day of the shoot and wound up in the hospital — a fate that didn’t seem too far off in the midst of her latest interview, as she tried to keep it together. “I am a hypochondriac, so a lot of things are happening in my mind about what’s going wrong right now,” she said, looking wobbly, as Malanda patted her knee by her side. “I have given so much since September and suddenly I just can’t anymore. The power of what the film is doing is beyond what I had imagined, what I had planned.”
Still, she was heartened by the decision by France’s newly revamped committee to select her movie for awards contention. “Of course it’s an honor and a great source of pride, but it’s more than that,” she said. “We’re taking a film that features great Black actresses expressing something universal. This is a film that goes beyond the color line. I chose Guslagie not simply because she’s a Black woman but because she’s a great actress. To be able to show these women who surround me because they’re not seen enough is the most important thing.”
Malanda chimed in. “We’re seeing, beneath the destiny of an accursed woman, the universal appear in full daylight,” she said. “That’s what the Oscars committee saw, too. The Oscars, after all, are supposed to send out a movie to touch the most amount of people possible.”
They also put filmmakers on Hollywood’s radar. Diop may not seem like the most obvious choice for a commercial undertaking, but she recently signed with CAA, and “Saint Omer” proves she could bring a singular energy to contemporary cinema fraught with purpose and artistry on her own terms.
But she’s not ready to consider that until she has a chance to clear her head. “I’m so deeply in the tornado of the release right now that I don’t know where I’ll be when I get to the other side of the storm,” she said, “if I can get there.”
“Saint Omer” is currently in contention for the Oscar shortlist, which will be released on December 21, 2022. Neon releases it theatrically on January 13, 2023.More from IndieWire
- Oscar Hopefuls and Sales Titles Lurk at Sundance 2023: Programmers Unpack the Lineup
- 'Saint Omer' Trailer: Alice Diop's Haunting Courtroom Drama Throws Motherhood into a Surreal Tailspin