Hollywood scriptwriters are on strike, protesting about poor rates of pay and the threat of being replaced by AI. There may be quality writing on cable TV, but the stuff we get in American action films and superhero flicks could already have been written by AI, or by a fridge, or a lawnmower. My most recent exposure was Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: two hours and twenty minutes of eye candy and plodding dialogue.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the problem is reversed. Two French films just released in Australia, Saint Omer and One Fine Morning, are remarkably static, depending almost entirely on dialogue to hold the viewer’s interest. These films are the opposite of “pure cinema” as they draw on very few of the resources of which the cinema is capable. In both cases, the script has swallowed the movie. This need not guarantee a dull night at the pictures because there are plenty of brilliant films in which nothing much happens. Think of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André (1981), a conversation between two friends in a restaurant.
I wish I could be so positive about this week’s features, which have won numerous awards and gathered rave reviews, but it’s never a good sign in a movie when I continually feel the urge to peek at my watch. One suspects these films owe much of their acclaim to highly sensitive subject matter. In Saint Omer, a writer of African origin attends the trial of a woman from Senegal who has murdered her own child. In One Fine Morning, a woman copes with her father’s dementia while sorting out her own fractured love life.
It would be outrageous to say these films were tedious to watch. We all like to believe that when weighty moral issues are at stake, we give them our full attention. Indeed, it’s almost a test of our humanity to sit stoically through such stories, enter sympathetically into the lives of the characters and feel we have experienced something profound. If I can’t do so, it’s not for want of trying, it’s because these films struck me as failed narratives – ineffective exercises in storytelling that presume too much of the audience.
The lead character of Saint Omer is a woman named Rama (Kayije Kagame), whom we meet giving a lecture to a university class. She shows a clip of female collaborators having their heads shaved at the end of World War Two and reads out a passage from Marguerite Duras’s haunting script for Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). We assume Rama is an academic, but she is also a creative writer.
Rama has a difficult relationship with her mother, and her Sengalese family, even though they have all lived in France for many years. She is married to a cheerful, bear-like musician called Adrien (Thomas de Pourquery), who gives her the unconditional support she needs.
In preparation for her next book, she travels to the northern town of Saint-Omer, where a woman called Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is on trial for the murder of her two-year-old daughter. The bulk of the film consists of the court proceedings, presented in a no-frills manner with very little camera movement. There is no question Laurence left the child on the beach to drown, but much that needs to be established about her motivations, her state of mind, and whether there were any mitigating factors.
Laurence is an articulate but strangely emotionless defendant. She freely admits to the murder but suggests there may be witchcraft involved. Rather than explaining her actions, she seems to believe the court should be telling her what happened. After a privileged upbringing in Senegal, she found it hard to complete a philosophy degree in France and settled into a relationship with an older man. Her testimony is unreliable, and frequently at odds with the facts.
Rama, who is pregnant, is upset by this confusing case. She speaks with Laurence’s mother, who endorses the “witchcraft” idea, and sits in her hotel room watching extracts from Pasolini’s Medea (1969). She is trying to see the child murderer as a latter-day, African Medea, but the comparison doesn’t stack up. As the trial continues, she becomes more and more upset, her thoughts filled with flashbacks to her own childhood. When she and Laurence eventually lock eyes, it’s as if she is being drawn into a complicity she must resist.
This may sound like a promising story, but writer-director, Alice Diop, leaves us a lot to do. The unfolding of the narrative could be much clearer, while the lead actors are stiff and expressionless. Both women appear to be suffering from some deeply buried trauma, but they may as well be wearing masks. There is a dramatic reason for these wooden performances, but it still feels as if we are being kept at arm’s length. As we try and solve the puzzle of these two frozen personalities, their feelings about motherhood, and perhaps what it means to be an African in France, the truly monstrous thing – the murder of the child – is treated with almost forensic detachment.
Alice Diop took the bones of her story from the case of Fabienne Kabou, who was put on trial in Saint-Omer in 2016, for killing her own child. The real-life aspect makes matters even more disturbing, leaving us unsure about where to separate fact from fiction.
Mia Hansen-Løve has drawn on her experience of her own father’s dementia in writing One Fine Morning. Like all of this director’s work, the film is a low-key family drama that proceeds at a leisurely pace, stitching together a story out of small episodes of everyday life.
Both of Hansen-Løve’s parents were philosophy professors, and there’s usually a philosophy professor, or some overt reference to philosophy in her films. This time the professor is one Georg Kienzler (Pascal Greggory), who is suffering from a degenerative illness known as Benson’s Syndrome. When we meet the professor, his daughter is telling him how to unlock the door by turning the key. That’s after she has helped him remember the word, “key”.
That daughter, Sandra (Léa Seydoux – trying unsuccessfully to look dowdy), is the protagonist of this tale, and, one assumes, the director’s alter-ego. Sandra is an interpreter and a single mother, bringing up a young daughter of her own. She had given up on love until she ran into an old friend named Clément (Melvil Poupaud) a scientist who analyses cosmic dust. If there’s any symbolism in this, you’ll have to work it out for yourselves.
Clément, who is unhappily married, spends most of the film wondering what he should do about his new and old relationships. Sandra wonders if he will ever leave his wife and move in with her. Everybody wonders about what to do with the professor, who is moved from one dismal old people’s home to another. That’s basically the story.
If the film were set in Wollongong rather than Paris, with the professor a retired boiler maker, Sandra an unmarried Mum who works in Coles, and Clément a taxi driver, there wouldn’t be a lot of difference. Aging parents are a familiar problem for people all over the world, as are the perils of love, marriage and adultery.
Hansen-Løve seems to delight in the ordinariness of the story. It’s almost as if she expects us to be reassured that Parisian philosophy professors, interpreters and scientists go through the same tawdry ordeals as the rest of us. In this, she may be accused of offending against one of the unspoken rules of art – what the Russian formalist, Viktor Shklovsky called “making strange”. Instead of making the everyday world into a stranger and more interesting place, she has made Paris and philosophy professors feel depressingly ordinary.
Directed by Alice Diop
Written by Amrita David, Alice Diop, Zoé Galeron
Starring: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Valérie Dréville, Aurélia Petit, Xavier Maly, Salimatta Kamate, Robert Cantarella, Thomas de Pourquery
France, M, 123 mins
One Fine Morning
Written & directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
Starring: Léa Seydoux, Pascal Greggory, Melvil Poupaud, Nicole Garcia, Camille Leban, Martins, Sarah Le Picard, Pierra Meunier, Fejria Deliba, Jacqueline Hansen-Løve
France/UK/Germany, MA 15+, 112 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 10 June, 2023