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In the Space of a Few Breaths, ‘Saint Omer’ Highlights Its Characters’ Humanity

Director Alice Diop on the unseen (but heard) connections between the film's main characters.

SAINT OMER, Kayije Kagame, 2022. © Super/ Courtesy Everett Collection

“Saint Omer”

Courtesy Everett Collection

There are a thousand ways to shoot a true crime story, but maybe really only one – if the goal is to focus the audience on the nuance of the characters in a way that inspires self-reflection, not judgement. “Saint Omer” does just that, in no small part because of how director Alice Diop approaches film form with a blend of documentary and narrative techniques. The film is based on the real-life trial of a woman accused of killing her infant daughter, but this fictionalized account relies not at all on the strategic feints of the prosecution and the defense, thrilling reveals of withheld information, or crime scene recreations. Instead, Diop’s precisely composed long takes simply force us to sit and to listen to the story Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) tells.

In scripted features, usually there’s a lot of invisible work done to help the audience focus on the drama at hand — everything from swapping out one day’s sky for another to tailoring the soundscape to focus on dialogue until important incidental sounds need to appear to establish or reinforce a setting. The courtroom in which much of “Saint Omeer” takes place has a slightly messier, but more realistic, sonic atmosphere of rustling and stray noise. There’s always a little bit of a human touch in the background, even as the trial of an infanticide unfolds.

The soundscape of “Saint Omer” was crafted by sound editor Josefina Rodríguez and re-recording mixer Emmanuel Croset, a veteran of working on Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries. But Rodrígeuz, Croset, and director Alice Diop take this more textured, more human-inflected soundscape and then choose, at the beginning, end, and in key moments throughout the film, to magnify the specific sounds of breathing. The simple, audible reminder that these people are alive keeps the audience from projecting tropes onto them.

It’s impossible for a reason. “This is a very intellectual, cerebral film but at the same time [it’s] very empathetic, very felt,” Diop told IndieWire, “[And all the feeling] comes through the extremely sophisticated sound work, led by my sound editing and mixer.” Diop and her team leave it somewhat ambiguous whether or not the sounds are coming from Laurence Coly up in the defendant’s box or the novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame) watching from the benches, but for a purpose: the overwhelming presence of the sound and lack of a clear source actually unites the two main characters.

Guslagie Malanda as Laurence Coly in "Saint Omer"

“Saint Omer”

Wild Bunch Films

“The breaths that we hear from Laurence and Rama at the trial, it’s like another language. It’s a way of getting extremely close to the emotions, the sensations, and the feelings of these characters,” Diop said. The sound acts almost like a way of getting inside of them and experiencing the extremely spare, utilitarian courtroom, a space ostensibly devoted to objectivity and the truth, from an extremely subjective point of view. But the viewer also somewhat decides for themself what that subjective point of view is. In a way, the audience gains access to both Rama’s and Laurence’s subjectivity and the soundscape unites them both. Diop’s approach to sound is reflective of her approach to showing all the characters’ complex relationship with motherhood.

“This comes from the drawn breaths,” Diop said. “The film is situated on the border between fiction and documentary, but at the same time, it’s extremely, extremely a film. The sound work is inspired by documentary but it also carries [abstract, expressive techniques] as well.”

To hear the rest of IndieWire’s interview with Diop, listen to the latest episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit, available on Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercast, and Stitcher.

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