Saint Omer is the director’s first narrative feature after a career till now in documentaries, including 2001’s acclaimed We, a tender portrait of the multiplicity of communities traversed by a suburban rail line. At the Venice Film Festival, Saint Omer won the Silver Lion grand jury prize and the award for best debut feature, and after landing on many critics’ year-end lists, it’s expected to garner Oscar attention.
For all its sly twists and glancing revelations, it’s a film of exceptional stillness and quiet, with much of the churning tumult happening in the viewer’s mind as the quicksilver story tilts our assumptions and judgments. There are also long, unbroken passages of riveting testimony, some spanning 20 minutes. (Long-take master Frederick Wiseman inspired Diop to become a documentarian.) The scenes are beautifully and patiently lensed by Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Petite Maman) and often spellbindingly held by the faces of Malanda and Kagame, a first-time Swiss actor who caught Diop’s eye after raising her hand to ask the director a question at a screening Q&A.
Vogue spoke with Diop and Malanda this week about cliché roles for Black actors, how the lingering shots evoke Diop’s own experience at the trial, and the one singular piece of music that haunted the writing of the script.
Vogue: This film is anchored by two towering performances; their presence is almost transfixing. Alice, how did you cast your actors?
Alice Diop: I wrote the film with both actresses in mind, even though I hadn’t told them yet that I was thinking about using them. I had the echo of their presence and personality in mind when I was writing. I had an unusual hunch that they were the only ones who could play those characters, and it was a strong intuition I kept for a long time.
I understand you gave them a year to consider the roles.
Diop: I gave both of my actresses the time to assimilate and accept these parts. It was not so much the kind of casting where I was trying to evaluate one actress versus another. It was the meeting of myself and them as much as the meeting of them and the parts.