film fatales #195: saint omer (alice diop, 2022)

This is the twenty-third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 23 is called "New Black Film Canon Week":

In 2006 Slate published a list of the 50 best movies by Black filmmakers, curated by Black critics, scholars, and filmmakers themselves. Since then, culturally significant and seminal films like Moonlight and Get Out have been released so this year they have updated and expanded the list to 75 movies. These movies span over a hundred years, several countries, a variety of genres and styles, and encompass different sizes of production budgets.

This week let’s celebrate Black filmmakers and watch one of these artistic treasures from Slate’s The New Black Canon.

Saint Omer has already been established as one of the best films in recent years (it is currently #291 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century). Alice Diop was a director of documentaries who attended the real-life trial of a woman who left her one-year-old child on the beach to die. Taken by the story, Diop decided to make her first fiction feature, basing it on the real trial. There is a character, Rama (Kayije Kagame), a writer attending the trial in order to write a book about it, who is a stand-in for Diop at the real trial. There's a certain meta quality to all of this, but Diop doesn't just rely on a documentary style to tell this story, and the acting, which is powerful throughout, is a constant reminder that we watching fiction. Rama identifies with the defendant (played by Guslagie Malanda) to some degree, which further complicates the meta aspect (since Rama is also a version of Diop).

Saint Omer is easy to follow, but the emotional and philosophical angles are complex. As the mother says, when asked why she abandoned her daughter, "I hope this trial can give me the answer". She tries to understand what she has done, the court and the spectators also look for understanding, and we in the audience look to Diop to explain everything. But she isn't trying to simply explain. It's a mystery without a solution, but it's not frustrating. Rather, Diop convinces us that we often can't understand what others do, or even what we ourselves have done.

creature features: dracula's daughter (lambert hillyer, 1936)

Although it came 5 years later, this was the actual sequel to Dracula, starting off with the deaths of Dracula and Renfield. It's slow moving, and not particularly interesting, but the subtext has fascinated analysts to this day. There were suggestions of lesbianism in the script, but by the time the film made the screen, the Code had taken care of that. So you have to look pretty hard to see it. But once you've seen it, you can't shake it. Dracula's daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), wants to be freed from the curse of being a vampire, but her impulses get the best of her time and time again. A couple of her victims are women, and the element of seduction which underlies so many vampire stories is here as well. It has also been argued that the isolation from society the Countess feels reflects the status of lesbians at the time.

All of this is enough to get us through the short running time, but don't exaggerate its greatness. Eventually, movies got more explicit, and subtext often moved to context. I saw 1970's The Vampire Lovers at a drive-in, and it was filled with nudity and horseplay among the women. But in fairness, it wasn't any better than Dracula's Daughter ... nudity didn't guarantee quality.

Here is a scene from Dracula's Daughter, where the Countess takes a woman off the street to pose for a painting:

And something from The Vampire Lovers:

high sierra (raoul walsh, 1941)

High Sierra was Humphrey Bogart's breakthrough role. He was considered a supporting player before this ... in fact, the credits have Ida Lupino's name atop Bogart's. His Roy Earle established what future generations think of as Bogie: hard-boiled with a soft center, caring about others while trying to hide it, commanding his scenes. It was also a breakthrough for John Huston, who parlayed his work as screenwriter here into his first directorial effort, The Maltese Falcon.

Bogart makes his gangster real ... we care about his fate. Lupino is perhaps best known today as one of the earliest female directors, but she's good here as Roy's moll. High Sierra is a solid gangster picture, with an unusual setting for the genre (much of it shot on location in the Sierras). It carries historical importance, and is well worth watching, although for some reason I never really felt I was watching a classic.