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Film Review: Living & Saint Omer

Arts Review2023-1-19By: Marc Glassman


Films about Living and Dying

Living & Saint Omer 

Film reviews by Marc Glassman



Oliver Hermanus director

Kazuro Ishiguro, script based on the Japanese film Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa

Inspired by The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

Starring: Bill Nighy (Mr. Williams), Aimee Lou Wood (Miss Margaret Harris), Alex Sharp (Mr. Peter Wakeling),

Tom Burke (Mr. Sutherland), Adrian Rawlins (Mr. Middleton), Zoe Boyle (Mrs. McMasters)


What makes a life worthwhile? It’s one of those essential questions that comes up in philosophy or religious classes when you are young but it rarely is asked when you’re older. That is, until you’re quite old and then that query returns with resounding force.

In Living, a British career bureaucrat, Mr. Williams, is going through life without a thought as to its meaning. He wears a dark suit and a bowler hat, fully in keeping with all of those middle brow civil servants in 1950’s England, and doesn’t think very much about his job, his colleagues or his family. He goes to the office every morning, taking the train with his fellow workers, who dress and act like him, and speaks succinctly with little emotion while on the job. Mostly, Mr. Williams and his team shuffle stacks of papers, moving them from one office tray to the next, ensuring that nothing actually happens. Local London ladies come to see him regularly to try to drain a cesspool in their neighbourhood and turn it into a playground. Mr. Williams ushers them to other disinterested people in similar offices, who move them in a roundelay ending up back with him. At night, the widowed Mr. Williams goes home to his son and daughter-in-law, who barely maintain an interest in him due to forced familial responsibility and an active expectation of receiving an inheritance when he eventually dies. 

One day, Mr. Williams discovers the worst possible news: his doctor informs him that he’s dying of stomach cancer and has less than a year to live. Understandably upset, he goes to the seaside where he meets a writer, Mr. Sutherland, with whom he confides his death sentence. In a remarkable series of scenes, Sutherland shows Williams what bohemian life is like, with all of its aimless but spirited drinking and dancing and singing. Williams sings “The Rowan Tree” to a group of drunken partiers: his rendition quiets them down, moving them and Sutherland—and certainly this filmgoer. 

The next morning, Williams realizes that the drunken life isn’t for him, leaving him at loose ends. It’s then that he encounters one of his colleagues, Miss Margaret Harris, who is still young and hopeful. She wants him to sign papers to allow her to move to another job and he does so with the proviso that he takes her to a fancy lunch. The two begin to strike up a unique friendship, which leads him to confide in her that he is dying and wants to know what makes her so full of life. She has no answer but perhaps inspired by her example, he returns to work and spends his final months ensuring that the ladies’ playground is actually constructed. 

After his death, his colleagues and son wonder what caused the change in Mr. Williams’ behaviour in the last months of his life. He’s never told anyone else about his prognosis—only Sutherland and Miss Harris. His death and life remain a mystery to the rest, although we’re left with the image of Williams swinging on one of the playground’s swings, singing “The Rowan Tree” near the end of his days.

Living is a deliberately small, quiet film. It’s about the biggest issue in the world but it does so with no explosive scenes or dramatic speeches. The Nobel Prize winning novelist Kazuro Ishigura has done a marvelous job, adapting Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese classic Ikiru into a truly British film. That the inspiration for both films is Tolstoy’s Russian novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich shows that the story contained in Living is universal. The film is brilliant enabled by the luminous performance of Bill Nighy as Mr. Williams. Living is a film that everyone should see; it’s one of the most extraordinary works of recent times. 


Saint Omer

Alice Diop, director and co-script w/Amrita David & Marie NDiaye

Starring: Kayije Kagame(Rama), Guslagie Malanga (Laurence Coly), Valerie Dreville (The Judge), Aurelia Petit (Defence Barrister Vaudenay), Xavier Maly (Luc Dumontet), Robert Canterella (Barrister), Salimata Kamate (Odile Diata), Thomas de Pourquery (Adrian)


Saint Omer is a remarkable film, which doesn’t mean that it makes for easy viewing. A court room drama about matricide, the film marks the drama film debut of award-winning documentarian Alice Diop, who is a French director with Senegalese roots. The film is based on a real case, which Diop covered, in which a young Senegalese immigrant mother admitted to killing her 15-month child, offering as a defense that she was probably crazy. Over the course of Diop’s dramatized reimaging of the case, it becomes clear that “Laurence Coly” is alienated from her white French lover Luc Dumontet and her Senegalese mother Odile Diata. She doesn’t identify with either culture or society and feels herself trapped in a world in which she likely feels incapable of raising a child.

While Coly’s case is in the foreground of Saint Omer, the leading character is Rama, a writer and professor, also of Senegalese ancestry, who is pregnant and in a relationship with a white Frenchman, Adrian. Although Adrian treats Rama with the respect that Coly never received from Dumontet, she still identifies with the woman on trial. Adding to that is Rama’s increasing friendship with Coly’s mother, Odile. Clearly, Rama is a somewhat idealized version of Alice Diop, who was pregnant with her first child when she covered the real trial of Fabienne Kabou, the inspiration for Laurence Coly.

Much of the film is given to the interrogation of Coly by the Judge and the Defence and Prosecuting Barristers. The Judge is clearly puzzled by the matricide and tries in various ways to understand the psychology of Laurence Coly, who is an intellectual but a failure as an academic. Coly’s philosophical replies are too obscure for the Judge to understand and although the Defence Barrister tries to humanize her client, it’s evident that no one can justify the killing of a child. The rude and abrasive Prosecuting Barrister simply reinforces the racism and sexism that runs throughout the case. 

Rama tries to understand Coly, thinking that she can rewrite the case as a modern Medea, but her idea remains inexact. There are references to the forbidding images of Maria Callas in her astonishing performance as Medea in Pasolini’s film and Margaret Duras’ evocation of a French female collaborator, who falls in love with a German soldier in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, but nothing truly explains Coly’s matricide. Like those two films, we’re left to contemplate the incomprehensible.

Saint Omer is a film of genuine quality. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and has been acclaimed as the Best Foreign Film of 2022 by the Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto Film Critics Associations. No, it’s not for everyone but Alice Diop’s film is a thought provoking and moving work.



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