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‘Women Talking’ and ‘Saint Omer’ Will Stay With You Long After Award Season Ends

Heading into the Oscars this year, it feels harder to notice the movies that don’t raise their voices. But make no mistake: Sarah Polley’s and Alice Diop’s films deserve attention.

Les Films du Losange/United Artists/Ringer illustration

With Avatar and Babylon, movies are in a moment of maximalism: James Cameron’s and Damien Chazelle’s epics throw as much as possible at the audience. Elsewhere, even non-blockbuster offerings like Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale and Todd Field’s Tár crank the emotion up to 11, as if trying to hold the viewer’s attention through sheer volume. In an award season when bigger seems to equal better—in which both Top Gun: Maverick and RRR look like good bets for Best Picture—it’s harder than usual to notice movies that don’t raise their voices.

Sarah Polley’s Women Talking and Alice Diop’s Saint Omer are both relatively soft-spoken, dialogue-driven dramas with some interesting points of comparison. Each takes place in a remote, insulated community whose members are dealing with the fallout of shocking crimes; they’re chamber dramas that unfold amid landscapes of psychic wreckage. In the former, the women of a Mennonite colony (transposed from Bolivia in Miriam Toews’s source novel) meet in secret to discuss their collective response to years of systematic sexual abuse by the men around them—husbands, fathers, and sons using religious piety as a cover for predatory depravity. In the latter, a Senegalese Frenchwoman accused of drowning her infant daughter takes the stand in her own defense, claiming—unconvincingly—to have been under the influence of witchcraft. With their precise craftsmanship and gifted ensemble casts, both films have been factors during award season, with Saint Omer scoring best international feature film citations from various critic groups and Women Talking poised to score Oscar nominations in the Best Adapted Screenplay and acting categories. But where Polley’s carefully calibrated fable keeps bumping up against the limits of its claustrophobic conceit, Diop’s docudrama transcends them; despite its static subject and devastating content, it’s one of the most transporting and absorbing films of its kind in years.

At first, Women Talking seems like a lively and effective adaptation, including the decision to switch the first-person narration from the story’s sole significant male character—the good-hearted, queer-coded schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw)—to preteen Autje (Kate Hallett), whose strong and innocent (but not naive) voice is just right for a story about how histories are passed down and rewritten in the interest of future generations. Ostensibly, the characters are gathered to deliver a referendum vote on whether to fight against their perpetrators or run from them, turning the other cheek having lost its appeal over time. But of course, Polley’s and Toews’s women are talking about more than just what is to be done. They’re comparing experiences, whether out of commiseration or competitive fury; they’re wrestling with ideas of self-preservation that may estrange them from their male children, who would need to be left behind in any potential exodus; somehow, despite the grimness of the situation, they’re gossiping and joking. In her first true ensemble drama, Polley—who showed a real gift for interpersonal intimacy in the tragic romances Away From Her and Take This Waltz—balances her cast splendidly, finding room for a variety of performance styles, including Rooney Mara’s deceptively waifish wispiness, Claire Foy’s urgent intelligence, and Jessie Buckley’s incandescent anger.

Because Toews’s material is so strong, Polley is able to diverge from it, occasionally with startling effectiveness: The moment when it’s revealed that our traditionally garbed characters are living in the here and now uses pop music as unexpectedly (and exuberantly) as the director did in Take This Waltz. But some of Polley’s other choices don’t work at all, including the desaturated visual palette, which is meant to evoke a drained, bloodless existence but plays as excessive stylization. Ditto the faux-Malickian interludes of children running through corn at magic hour, which contradict the film’s ruling visual language in ways that don’t feel thought through. There’s also a sense that Polley’s good intentions are suffocating her sense of drama—that even as she hews closely to her source text, she’s straining to hit contemporary sociological talking points rather than letting them emerge organically. (The treatment of the film’s sole trans character is telling on this point: He’s defined exclusively by his trauma, to the point that he feels like a prop.) As Women Talking goes on, even the most vivid actors start to feel reduced to positions in a rhetorical exercise—one caught between blistering urgency and a kind of tentative base covering. Ideally, a movie like this would force the viewer into uncomfortable positions instead of simply confronting them with terrible things, but in the end, Polley opts for uplift. The final images of escape are stirring but ultimately don’t feel like much more than an optimistic route out of the material and its real-world implications.

There’s no crowd-pleasing impulse in Saint Omer, which is as rigorous and stringent as filmmaking gets. It begins with a series of highbrow references that place the onus of recognition on the audience; in a moment when mainstream moviemakers seem terrified of alienating or offending viewers, Diop gamely respects and challenges our intelligence. We open in a classroom where novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame) is teaching a class on the French writer Marguerite Duras, famous for the screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour; elsewhere, her work was filled with female characters whose actions defy traditional notions of empathy or absolution. In the 1980s, Duras even published a controversial essay about an unsolved child murder in northeastern France that wrongly imagined the boy’s mother as the culprit—less an attempt at bringing a person to justice than at contemplating metaphysics. Rama wants to write her own Duras-like essay about infanticide and the myth of Medea, and her literary aspirations complicate Saint Omer’s fact-based narrative, which features testimonies taken almost verbatim from a 2016 trial that Diop observed in person. The layers of truth and fiction here are dizzyingly assembled, and there are endless mirroring devices embedded just so in the images and storytelling; Rama’s heritage links her both to Diop (whose parents were born in Senegal) and to the defendant, Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), who, like her, is an intellectual and has an older Caucasian partner. She’s also pregnant herself.

These vertices are tricky, yet once Rama arrives in Saint-Omer and takes her seat in the courtroom—fixing her gaze on the quiet, strangely sphinxlike Laurence as she undergoes fraught, accusatory cross-examinations by a series of lawyers—the film adopts a tone of primal, beguiling intensity. How, it asks, is it possible to reconcile the intelligent, educated woman on the stand with her actions or with her claims of sorcery? Is this a story of cruelty? Madness? Or is the real subject something else entirely? Is Rama uniquely equipped to understand—or empathize with—a Black woman whose humanity had been broken down over time by the judgments and prejudices of a country whose majority population regarded her as other? Or is she herself exploiting Laurence Coly by trying to turn her into a literary subject or symbol?

Like any good filmmaker, Diop is more interested in raising questions than in offering answers, probably because in this case, she doesn’t really have any. “I was obsessed by the story and almost drawn to it like a magnet,” she told Film Comment’s Devika Girish last fall. “When I went to the trial, I was confronted by the reality of this woman—the way she was, the way she spoke, the complexity of her story, the impossibility for me of understanding her act—and I didn’t have any more clarity at the end of the trial. … It was very upsetting.” That frustration is sublimated by her film’s scrupulously controlled, documentary-style realism: a refusal to concede to the rhythms or conventions of courtroom dramas. This defiance extends to the camera compositions, which are either weirdly off-center or positioned to suggest the underlying power dynamics between the different participants.

The performances in Saint Omer aren’t likely to win awards because they don’t feel like performances. They’re too direct and unaffected. But the actors are phenomenal all the same, with Kagame convincingly playing a woman who’s become trapped inside her head and Malanda making an unsettling turn in a part that demands emotional opaqueness. The exception—and it’s a doozy—is a gesture near the end of the film when Laurence, listening silently to the judge reading her own confession into the record, looks directly at the camera: at Rama, but also at us. What happens next isn’t worth spoiling, but if it’s possible for an expression to be simultaneously bewildering and devastating, hers qualifies: It’s the sort of moment that you bring home from the theater and live with for a little while, wondering whether it’ll ever leave you alone.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.