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Venice Dispatch: Loznitsa’s “The Kiev Trial,” Diop’s “Saint Omer,” Dominik’s “Blonde”

Loznitsa’s unsettling doc, Diop’s confrontative courtroom drama, and Dominik’s subversive biopic are three late Venice standouts.
Leonardo Goi
The Kiev Trial.
His second film of the year—and seventh since the start of the decade—Sergei Loznitsa’s latest archival documentary, The Kiev Trial, is a chronicle of the titular 1946 hearing that saw fifteen Nazi officers convicted of crimes against humanity in a ruling that would predate the Nuremberg sentences by a few months. “If The Natural History of Destruction was a symphony,” Loznitsa told me as we sat to discuss his latest halfway through the fest, “The Kiev Trial is a chamber piece.” Unveiled in Cannes just a few months ago, Natural History cartwheeled across a vast and lugubrious canvas of carpet-bombings during World War II. Where that film was sprawling, the narrative here is much more straightforward. We begin with a brief parade of post-war, rubble-littered Kiev before venturing into the courtroom, which we’ll only leave to witness the Nazis’ executions together with a crowd of 200,000 besieging Kalinin Square.
Crowds and masses have always been at the forefront of Loznitsa’s archival films. Even when these zoom in on individuals (as his recent, majestic Mr. Landsbergis), it is everyday people that take the spotlight. His projects run counter to conventional, top-down dramatizations of History, which they swap for a more horizontal approach, unearthing and reassessing some of the most of seismic events of the twentieth century from the perspective of those who went through them. The Kiev Trial, in this light, is no major departure. Here too, Loznitsa intersperses the exchanges between prosecutors, defendants, and witnesses with brief glimpses of the people watching the whole show unfold. And a show this is, a choreographed spectacle with its large cast and script. We watch Nazi officers read out their confessions in German, interpreters translate them into Russian, and prosecutors prod for more details. Some of the defendants sound defiant, others shell-shocked, others still end up abjuring their faith in national socialism in a last-minute bid for absolution. Are these U-turns genuine, or is it all just a performance?
It’s a tension that animated another Soviet-era hearing Loznitsa dredged up in The Trial (2018), which featured top rank economists and engineers charged with treason in the early 1930s. But in themes and mood, his last harkens back to 2021’s Babi Yar: Context, Loznitsa’s account of the extermination of nearly 34,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Kiev. Babi Yar and the Holocaust feature prominently in The Kiev Trial, conjured in the memories of those who witnessed those traumas first-hand. If Loznitsa models the film’s structure around that of the trial, he arranges the dramaturgy so that the testimonies grow more harrowing and terrifying at each witness. It’s a litany of hair-rising horrors (entire villages scorched, mothers beaten to death, infants shot in their arms) that seems designed to interrogate both the origins of all that evil as well as our relationship with it. Here are memories of unspeakable atrocities—what do we do with them? As the dread piled on, I found myself longing for shots of the trial audience listening in near-perfect silence (the fitful coughing and chairs creaking are courtesy of Vladimir Golovnitskiy’s outstanding foley work, amplifying the doc’s you-are-there intimacy). But Loznitsa denies that solace, that recognition through shared disbelief, the camera only furtively glancing at those watching from the benches. Arguably more so than any other archival doc Loznitsa has crafted, The Kiev Trial is an intimate affair, one that locks the viewer into an uncomfortable dialogue with the past.
Saint Omer.
I left The Kiev Trial and entered another in Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, truly one of the year’s strongest and most confrontative competition films. Its predecessor, We (Nous), a meandering documentary tapestry of human lives and chance encounters along the RER B, a train line that bisects Paris, found a productive clash between the notions of community and assimilation. Diop seemed to posit this tension as a dangerously homogenizing process (a question of sacrificing one’s identity to belong to a bigger whole). Saint Omer too draws from that conflict, orbiting around questions that have hovered above Diop’s entire body of work: who’s this “we,” exactly? Who gets to be part of it, and at what cost?
Shot by Claire Mathon in a naturalistic style that echoes Diop’s earlier documentaries, the director's first fictional feature unfurls as a devastating two-hander in which the two sides never chat and never touch. A university professor and novelist, Rama (Kayije Kagame) travels from her native Paris to Saint Omer to attend the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a twenty-something French Senegalese woman charged with the death of her 15-month-old child Lilie, whom she drowned one night for reasons no one seems to understand—least of all Laurence (“I’m hoping this trial will teach me why,” she tells a baffled judge). But the hearing swells into a deluge of belittling and racist remarks. Stretching over multiple days, it gradually pivots on the mismatch between the cool, articulated persona Laurence projects, and the one everyone expects her to embody, from her former partner Luc (Xavier Maly), a Frenchman in his late sixties and father of Lilie, to the many pundits called to comment on her life choices.
But Saint Omer builds Laurence a kind of fortress, a shield with which she can fend off the most condescending and infuriating remarks by the judge and prosecutor (which is to say nearly all of them). Claire Mathon’s long, uninterrupted static shots are exemplary of this. Framing Laurence alone at the witness stand—and never drifting away as she tells her story—they have an ethical import, granting her the visibility and empathy she’s been denied. I don’t mean to suggest that Diop—along with co-scribes Amrita David and Marie Ndiaye—downplays Laurence’s crime, nor that, by the end, Saint Omer makes it any more intelligible than it was at the start. But clarifying or absolving is not what the film is after. As days go by and the trial moves toward its grand finale, Mathon’s camera lingers on Rama as she listens to Laurence in a state of trance. A Senegalese French intellectual carrying a mixed-race child herself, the parallels with Laurence are terrifyingly vivid, and Saint Omer builds between them a telepathic conduit, triggering all sorts of flashbacks that needle Rama into a reckoning with her own fractured identity, the two irreconcilable worlds she inhabits. Yet the film makes that recognition universal, and herein lies the source of its rousing power; the catharsis it reaches as the defense team delivers their final speech belongs to all those who hear it.
In tone and mood, Saint Omer couldn’t be farther from Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, which turns its heroine’s suffering into a dazzling, perturbing, and cumulatively intoxicating spectacle. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’s 1999 novel of the same name, which Dominik adapted for the screen, it charts the rise and fall of Norma Jeane Baker, a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe, from her troubled childhood as the daughter to an alcoholic and abusive mother (Julianne Nicholson), to her Icarus-like ascent to stardom. Still, pegging Blonde as a biopic feels somewhat restrictive. As it was for Dominik’s 2007 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—still his finest, in my book—the film doesn’t unfurl along a three-act structure so much as a series of impressionistic vignettes. It isn’t a painting of Marilyn that Dominik offers exactly, but a singular cross between a mosaic and a kaleidoscope, the film’s tesserae growing and swelling as you watch, a fittingly dizzy feeling for a tale that seeks to distort as much as it reveals.
Like Jesse James, Marilyn achieved fame long before her death, a condition Dominik treats in both films as a sort of curse, deriving a morbid tension from the ineluctable. Ana de Armas swans into Blonde as a tragic heroine, waiting for an untimely end she seems to know is coming. She’s an uncanny physical match for Marilyn, and an even better one vocally, her velvety voice bursting forth in breathless whispers, each of them its own plea. Death and spectacle have long been leitmotifs in Dominik’s oeuvre; in Jesse James, Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford turned the titular killing into a lugubrious play he’d go on to perform until his own murder; in Dominik’s majestic One More Time with Feeling (2016), the recording of Nick Cave’s album Skeleton Tree doubled as a rumination on the passing of the singer’s teenage son. Seen in this light, Blonde feels like an ideal match of filmmaker and subject, a chance for Dominik to shed light not simply on the icon, but on the grotesque, near-cannibalistic pull she exerted on crowds from all corners of the world.
Which is another way of saying that Blonde isn’t all too concerned with getting the facts right, much less in pinning its portrait of Marilyn to a linear, year-by-year chronology. Dominik’s sense of time is elastic; save for a handful of dates, the film gives close to no contextual and background information. It assumes we’re already familiar with the legend, and it pays respect to it even as it brings it down to Earth. The overarching crisis Blonde orbits around is one of dissonance: the distinction between the public Marilyn and the private Norma, who Frankensteined her own double and ended up killed by it. Perceptively, Dominik understands fame as a zero-sum game, and Blonde treats Norma/Marilyn as two doppelgängers: Marilyn’s planetary rise consigned Norma to a life of invisibility. There’s no denying the film’s labyrinthine scope, its disorienting tonal whiplash—toggling between horror and romance—or Dominik’s tendency to turn each scene into an expressionistic vision (a choice that can feel in turns dreamlike and overwhelming). But the messy, alienating, and often elliptical study Blonde conjures fits the woman (and the icon) at its heart. There is very little redemption to be found here, but that the ending still feels so mesmerizing is a testament to Dominik’s singular journey and idiosyncratic approach.


Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2022Sergei LoznitsaAlice DiopAndrew Dominik
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