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Review: No, movies are not empathy machines — and the brilliant ‘Saint Omer’ shows why

A woman looks away from two men in the movie "Saint Omer."
Guslagie Malanda in the movie “Saint Omer.”
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Roger Ebert once famously likened the movies to “a machine that generates empathy.” It’s a formulation I’ve never fully been able to swallow, for reasons that have less to do with Ebert’s specific insight than with its reductive, ad-nauseam recycling by other critics and moviegoers.

Meaningful empathy, often assumed to be cinema’s natural domain, can’t be operated like an ignition switch; it isn’t effortless, and it isn’t automatically generative. It has no use for pandering and no patience with an audience’s laziness. It requires time, focus and a subtle, molecular-level realignment of perspectives. The average movie insists on making its characters feel seen without first doing the basic work of looking and listening, or demanding that the viewer do the same.

The extraordinary new French drama “Saint Omer” is not an average movie in any sense. For long, spellbinding stretches, it compels you to look upon the face and figure of Laurence Coly, a young woman on trial in the murder of her infant daughter. Standing for most of the proceedings and speaking with dispassionate calm, she holds you with every word of her lucid, controlled and horrifying testimony, and also with her faintly regal bearing, the mix of resignation and defiance at play in her gaze. Even so, you can’t help but notice that she often seems on the verge of vanishing — an effect heightened by her uncanny stillness and her brown-colored shirt, all but blurring into the courtroom’s wood-paneled walls.

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Laurence’s strange powers of near-invisibility, as incarnated by an astonishing newcomer named Guslagie Malanda, are very much to the movie’s point. Written and directed by Alice Diop, a French documentarian making a stunner of a narrative debut, “Saint Omer” probes the mysteries of the seen and the unseen.

Before she abandoned her 15-month-old child, Elise, on a beach in the town of Berck-sur-Mer, Laurence — a Senegalese-born immigrant — moved through life virtually unnoticed and unknown. Elise, fathered by a married older white man, was stifled like a secret, along with Laurence’s own needs and desires. Her fateful actions ensured that the world would see her at last, though whether it would begin to understand her is another matter.

Laurence doesn’t seem to want understanding, at least not from others: “A woman who has killed her baby can’t really expect any sympathy,” she notes.

But this supremely intelligent and haunting movie, a major prizewinner at last year’s Venice International Film Festival and a shortlisted Oscar contender for best international feature, is very much an attempt to reckon with her and with actions often branded with the cliché of “unthinkable.”

With remarkable stealth and concentration, Diop rewires the generic circuitry of the courtroom drama, avoiding its natural inclination toward sensationalism and grandstanding. She also preserves, through a seamless meld of fiction and nonfiction, the contours and complexities of a terrible true story.

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A woman sits with other people in the movie "Saint Omer."
Kayije Kagame in the movie “Saint Omer.”
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The script (which Diop wrote with her editor, Amrita David, and Marie Ndiaye) draws heavily on court transcripts from the trial of Fabienne Kabou, who in 2016 received a 20-year prison sentence for drowning her baby. Laurence’s account hews closely to Kabou’s, down to the detail in which she admits the crime but insists sorcery was to blame.

As Laurence testifies, she speaks of her time in France as one of gradual, systemic and comprehensive abandonment: by her estranged parents, who saw her only in terms of her academic potential; by her lover, Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly), who kept her and their baby hidden from his own wife and family; and by a society indifferent to the most vulnerable individuals in its midst.

Diop attended Kabou’s trial, and here she bequeaths her perspective to an outside observer named Rama (a superb Kayije Kagame), a writer and professor who’s researching a new work based on Laurence’s case. Rama spies a thematic connection to Medea, which could be meaningful if not, per her publisher, terribly marketable. But what she discovers, after arriving in the town of St.-Omer and taking her place in the courtroom, is something far more intimate and frightening than mythology: recognition. She looks at Laurence — like her, a Black Frenchwoman of Senegalese descent — and sees a grim destiny that might, under slightly different circumstances, have mirrored her own.

Like Rama, Laurence steeped herself in language and the humanities, something that becomes clear when she describes her time as a philosophy student, or when she speaks in what media reports describe as a uniquely formal, heightened style of French. (Even so, would this distinction call as much attention coming from a white person? For that matter, would anyone question Laurence’s decision to write a thesis on Wittgenstein if she weren’t African-born — and therefore, as one dullard implies, incapable of grappling with the complexities of Western thought?)

The echoes go deeper: As we’ve seen from the early establishing scenes, Rama is expecting a child with her white partner, Adrien (Thomas de Pourquery). And Rama also bears the wound of a difficult mother-daughter relationship, one that has instilled in her an ambivalence and anxiety about her own impending motherhood.

A woman sits in a train car as the world flashes by  in the movie "Saint Omer."
Kayije Kagame in the movie “Saint Omer.”
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The brilliance of these courtroom scenes — etched in crystalline, hyper-observant long takes by superb cinematographer Claire Mathon (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Atlantics”) and beautifully pieced together by David — is how they draw you into seeing what Rama sees, without her uttering so much as a word. She sits in strained, watchful silence, the film registering every constriction of her throat and every tensing of her muscles as she listens to Laurence’s testimony.

The defendant’s invocations of witchcraft may be a cynical lie, but at times, a supernatural act of possession really does seem to be transpiring between the two women. It’s as if Rama has transferred her voice to Laurence, who, even while telling only her story, seems to speak for them both.

Is Rama the protagonist, or is Laurence? “Saint Omer” has little interest in answering that question: It’s a movie about the problem of identification, the effort it takes to actually see every individual as the protagonist of their own specific, unknowable story.

Diop’s visual choices continually reinforce this idea, particularly in the attention her camera lavishes on the other crucial figures in the courtroom: the judge (Valérie Dréville), always tempering her shock at Laurence’s testimony with understated kindness; the defense counsel (Aurélia Petit), skillfully underplaying the movie’s one dramatic summation; Laurence’s mother (Salimata Kamate), clinging stubbornly to pride even in the face of her daughter’s public humiliation; and especially the trembling, dissembling Luc, registering his own shock at Laurence’s devastating actions.

Did Laurence shut Luc out, or did he shut her and Elise away? “Saint Omer” grants both possibilities their weight, even as a more expansive third narrative — one that encompasses ugly truths about men and women, privilege and power, whiteness, Blackness and the French colonialist mind-set — silently coalesces in the spaces between testimonies. More than one individual in the courtroom is surely perceptive enough to pick up on that narrative. Still, it’s clear that no one in the room understands it as acutely or feels it as viscerally as Rama does, especially in the brief, transfixing moment when she and the defendant finally lock gazes for the first time.

That moment of connection hits you in the gut, and also in Rama’s; in Kagame’s superb performance, it seems to reverberate in the quickening thrum of her pulse, and in the life beginning to take shape in her womb. The future of that child is one of many things “Saint Omer” leaves unresolved, still struggling and waiting — like the new, more equal world that Diop allows us to imagine — to be born.

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‘Saint Omer’

In French with English subtitles

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: Starts Jan. 13 in general release

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