FOUR STARS A well-educated woman stands accused of killing her own child.
DRAMA France French #STOMER
Starring Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda
ST OMER is a true-ish story born from filmmaker Alice Diop's time in a courtroom when a young, well educated immigrant was on trial for the death of her infant. That experience, and some of the dialogue, gave birth to this fictional account of those proceedings. Diop’s surrogate in the film is Rama, a professor and author who observes the case, hoping it will be inspiration for her next novel. What she doesn’t anticipate is how deeply triggering the whole experience proves to be.
At it’s core, ST OMER questions how much family, society and cultural history can be held responsible for creating the monstrous who walk among us. Now wether you get to that point from watching the movie, or reading the film’s bio afterwards, is a reasonable question to ask. Many (ie, those who are not pregnant, not bound by mother issues, are not immigrants) will find it hard to connect with Diop’s narrative beyond the academic. It’s not like the story is in any kind of hurry to reveal its purpose or emotional heart.
Long, long court room scenes where the most dramatic moments involve raising an eyebrow will leave many audience members cold if not bored. And while this is the kind of film where the detail is found in the margins, most won’t have the patience to look that far. However it’s also fair to say that Diop doesn’t care if they don’t, and doesn’t especially care if she looses people along the way. This is a very precise, very specific kind of experience for a very specific audience.
For them (mothers, pregnant women, those with familial challenges, migrants perhaps), ST OMER cuts to the quick, triggering all manner of emotional responses. Concise scenes with Rama’s family or her mother reveal a lot about her life, as do short flashback sequences. Add them to the unsympathetic precision of the courtroom and It can be a brutal experience to watch.
ST OMER is the documentary maker’s first work of fiction, and she hasn’t strayed far from her roots. Lengthy, uninterrupted scenes and fixed camera angles keep a tight focus on the actors. The effect is as if Diop is making a documentary about the cast playing her characters. It’s like being in the courtroom yourself, in near real time, witnessing the case unfold and how the defendant, the judge and others evolve, devoid of the usual tricks and hysterics of a cinematic courtroom.
It’s quite unnerving to witness such passionless framing of such a passionate subject. It also has a theatrical quality that counter-intuitively supports the naturalism of the scenes which are intimate, and remote, mundane and unsettling in equal measure; qualities that make this a very polarising film. However Diop is much less concerned with pleasing a broad audience than she is with challenging those who engage with her story. If you’re up for that, ST OMER one of the more unique and distressing cinema experiences you can have.