Women look at women in Saint Omer, and they look at each other looking. We look at them looking. In what is almost the opening scene of the film, a writer and academic named Rama (Kayije Kagame) lectures to a class of undergraduates, mostly young women. They are watching footage from the aftermath of World War II: women who slept with German soldiers are loaded onto carts, their heads shorn, and paraded through the streets as collaborators. Rama, who is teaching Alain Resnais’s film Hiroshima mon amour (1959), reads to her students from the screenplay by Marguerite Duras, in which a French woman who took a German lover during the Nazi occupation of France relives her public humiliation after the war: ‘My father’s drug store is closed because of the disgrace. I’m alone. Some of them laugh.’
Enthroned in her professor’s chair, gazing down upon her students, Rama is also alone. But her god-like sovereignty is temporary. Soon she will travel to the Parisian dormitory suburb of Saint-Omer – ‘an absolutely devastated northern town where only the Marine Le Pen campaign posters haven’t been ripped down’, in the words of director Alice Diop – to watch the court trial of another young woman with academic ambitions, Laurence (Guslagie Malanda), a philosophy student who has been charged with murdering her fifteen-month-old daughter by deliberately letting her drown on a beach. Rama sits, day after day, in the public gallery, surreptitiously recording the trial, drawn in by a fascination she can hardly name. Laurence stands, day after day, in the defendant’s box.