Oscar contenders, 2023. Films reviewed: Saint Omer, The Son, Living

Posted in 1950s, 2000s, Courtroom Drama, Death, Drama, Family, France, Mental Illness, TIFF, UK by CulturalMining.com on January 21, 2023

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

This week, I’m looking at three potential Oscar contenders opening this weekend. There’s a writer in Paris attending a trial, a bureaucrat in London whose life is a trial, and a Dad dealing with the trials and tribulations of a mentally ill son.

Saint Omer

Wri/Dir: Alice Diop

It’s the early 2000s in a Parisian suburb. Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is on trial for murder. She admits to leaving the infant on a beach to be washed away with the tides one moonlit night, but why she did it is not so simple. She’s a Senegalese-French woman from Dakar, in Paris as a student. She is beautiful, articulate, poised and intelligent; not your usual murder suspect. As her mother (Salimata Kamate) told her, education and politesse are the two most important traits. But after a series of events she ends up living in a small apartment as a grey-haired, married man’s mistress — no longer in university, with no friends, no job, no future. And virtually no one knows she was pregnant nor that she gave birth at home. She existed in a strange limbo world.

All of this is taken in by Rama (Kayije Kagame) a novelist and university prof in Paris. She is following the trial in person, for a new book she’s writing about Medea. Like Laurence, she’s a French intellectual, and a black woman of West African background. More than that, she’s estranged from her mother and is in her first trimester of pregnancy. In a sea of white faces in the courtroom, she feels both a connection and a revulsion toward Laurence. Could this be me on trial? she wonders. And will I be a fit mother?

Saint Omer is a devastatingly powerful courtroom drama as seen through an observer’s eyes. It’s the opposite of a Law & Order episode — no smoking guns or pot twists. Rather it’s Laurence’s retelling of her story before judge and jury Rama’s reactions that carries all the power. It’s intentionally filled with subtle ambiguity so you’re never quite sure whether Laurence is lying and being coached to do so, or if she’s completely sincere. With women holding most of the key roles — including the judge and the defence council —  it strips away some misconceptions. The acting (by actress Malanda and artist/performer Kagame) is superb, and the filmmaking amazing. This is documentary filmmaker Alice Drop’s first drama.  Somehow, she takes the drab wooden panels of a classroom and a courtroom and turns them into something pulsing with emotion. 

This is a great movie. 

The Son

Wri/Dir: Florian Zeller

Beth and Peter (Vanessa Kirby, Hugh Jackman) are a newly married, upper-middle class couple with a new baby. All I going well until they get an unexpected knock on the door. His teenaged son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) says he can’t take living his mom anymore (Laura Dern) a full-time nurse whom Peter divorced and abandoned a few years earlier. What a dilemma! He can’t turn away his own flesh and blood, can he?  But Nicholas is difficult to live with. It seems he stopped going to school months ago — without telling his parents. And Beth finds him scary. What if he does something to our baby— how can I trust him? So they check him into a psych ward without his consent. But what can they do in the long run with this troublesome teen?

The Son is an overwrought  melodrama about divorced parents forced to care for their troubled son. It deals with anguish, anger and regret but only from the parents’ perspective, never from the son’s. He’s just a pain in the ass… and possibly a threat! This movie falls in that sub-genre of sympathetic parents forced to deal with sons who “selfishly” choose to become drug addicts or mental ill. How dare they! Despite what the parents try, those bad sons are criminals and liars at heart who can never be trusted. This dreadful collection of never-watch movies  includes Beautiful Boy, with Timothy Chalamet and Ben is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. This one has equal star power, and is just as hard to watch. It’s especially disappointing because it’s Florian Zeller’s follow-up to The Father a few years back about an elderly man slipping into dementia (Anthony Hopkins, who also appears in this film), as its unreliable narrator. But don’t be fooled. The Son has no redeeming features and is truly one of the worst movies of 2022.

Living

Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s Londin in the 1950s. Williams (Bill Nighy) is a mundane municipal bureaucrat, the head of public works at County Hall.  He spends most of his time at his desk — along with his subordinates Rusbridger, Middleton and Hart — keeping busy by ignoring piles of files and requests. Whenever troublesome locals appear, like a group of mothers requesting they build a tiny playground in a vacant lot, they’re quickly disposed of by sending them to another department in the endless bureaucratic labyrinth of city hall. The newly-hired Wakeling is quickly discouraged from working too hard — an empty inbox means you’re doing something wrong. The sole woman, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), is thinking of quitting to take a managerial job at a local restaurant. Since his wife died, Williams has lived a humdrum existence sharing his home with his adult son and daughter-in- law. But everything changes when his doctor brings him some terrible `news: incurable cancer, 6 months left to live. Suddenly everything takes on new meaning as he decides to start enjoying life and making things better for others. But is it too late?

Living is a period drama about life in post-war London. It captures the spark that can be reawakened in even the most humdrum person’s existence. It follows the night Williams spends in the demimonde led by an alcoholic bohemian he meets in a cafe; the days spent helping  Margaret, for the chance to share in her youth and vitaity; and a project he hoped to complete in his final days.

I approached this movie with trepidation, because it’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, one of my favourite movies of all time, which I didn’t want to see ruined. Happily, Living it is wonderful film in its own right. Maybe only a writer like UK novelist Kazuo Ishiguro could transport a story from Tokyo to London, while staying true to its original meaning and structure, even while giving this very Japanese film a distinctly English feel. Bill Nighy (who usually plays silly characters in crap movies) is wonderfully understated in this one. And South African director Oliver Hermanus, who brought us the great Moffie, again puts his all into the film he’s making. 

I recommend this movie.

Living, Saint Omer, and The Son all open this weekend in Toronto, with the latter two playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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