Saint Omer Review – Alice Diop’s Debut Feature is an Unforgettable Work of Crucial Storytelling

Acclaimed documentarian Alice Diop’s first narrative feature, Saint Omer, could easily have been a true crime documentary as it is based on the case of a Senegalese-French woman Fabienne Kabou who was on trial and eventually imprisoned for the murder of her infant daughter. Diop herself sat in on Kabou’s trial which was conducted in Saint-Omer in 2015. In choosing to fictionalise the trial, Diop is investigating her personal response to Kabou’s experience as a Senegalese immigrant living in France, with her own position as a French born Senegalese woman. More essentially, Diop is looking at the way a woman can vanish from the margins of society by being consistently made an outsider both in her county of origin and the country she resides in.

Using large portions of the transcript from Kabou’s trial the audience is never given a satisfactory answer to why Kabou committed infanticide by leaving her daughter to drown on the beach of Berck-sur-Mer. Was Kabou legitimately mad? Why should a woman of such intense intelligence suddenly believe she was being subjected to curses and sorcery?

Saint Omer is a fiction, but one so close to the events of the trial and Diop’s own response to what she witnessed, that the form of documentary merges with Diop’s fictional imagination. In the film Fabienne Kabou becomes Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) a woman born in Dakar in 1980 to Odile Diatta (Salimata Komare) and a mostly absent father who worked as a translator for the UN and left Odile not long after Laurence was born. Her childhood was neither happy nor unhappy. She was cared for by her beloved grandmother, Elise, whom she named her daughter after. Both parents placed strict rules and expectations on Laurence. She was not allowed to speak the local dialect, only perfect French, and her academic progress was considered her most important function.

In comparison, Diop becomes Rama (Kayije Kagame) an author and academic who was born to a Senegalese mother in France. The film opens with Rama giving a lecture about women who were shamed in France post WWII for perceived sexual collaboration with the occupying German forces. Their heads were shaved as a mark of shame. How do those women ever find a state of grace, Rama contemplates, before asking her students to read Marguerite Duras (an important Vietnamese born French novelist, screenwriter, and filmmaker who documented her own complex affairs with people on the margins of society, of which she was often one also).

Rama is living with a white partner, Adrien (Thomas de Pourquery) and dutifully but in deep discomfort attends dinners at her widowed mother Seynabou’s (Adama Diallo Temba) housing project apartment just outside Paris. There is tension in the family. Rama’s two sisters are annoyed that Rama does not devote enough time to Seynabou’s health. They watch home videos wherein the young Rama and the young Seynabou stare into the camera. Something is wrong between them, and as the film flashes back the audience begins to understand that Seynabou suffered extreme depression and exhaustion while being a single mother working to keep her young family alive.

Rama decides to go to Saint Omer to follow Coly’s trial. Eventually we find out it is because she is researching a novel on the mythological figure Medea (a powerful sorceress who killed her own sons in an act of revenge when abandoned by Jason for whom she risked everything to help him attain the golden fleece). Perhaps Coly’s story will fit into her narrative? In a conversation with her editor the man remarks that everyone is talking about how eloquently Coly speaks French. Rama replies “She speaks French like an educated woman.” There is a bone tiredness to Rama having to respond this way to someone who is surprised a Senegalese woman can be articulate.

In the court room Laurence Coly takes the stand. She does not deny the facts that she killed her daughter, yet she pleads not guilty. Her testimony covers her entire history as the Judge (Valérie Dréville) attempts to unravel what motivated the young woman to commit such an horrific crime. “If I am lying, I can’t know why,” Coly states. Her answers range from the starkly frank to the frustratingly vague. She is using the defence of Sorcery, a curse placed upon her by her Senegalese aunts, but that defence is soon undermined by the judge and even side-lined by her own advocate (Aurelia Petit). What becomes clear is that there will be no adequate reason given by Coly, but there will be a series of race-based misfortunes that turned Coly into an anonymous woman – a “phantom” whose interstitial existence made her survival tenuous. Too French to be accepted in Senegal (she is called an Oreo by her family there) and too African to be accepted in France, Laurence fell into a liminal existence which culminated in her living as a hidden mistress to a Caucasian 57-year-old married sculptor when she was just 24.

Laurence was a talented student and studied Law and then philosophy after she moved to France in 1998 (to escape the weight of her family). Yet, it is uncertain if she even attained a bachelor’s degree. She believed she was writing a PhD thesis on Wittgenstein but her racist supervisor questioned why an African woman would be interested in an Austrian linguistic philosopher.

A series of aggressions, micro and macro, follow Coly. When her father cuts her off financially she has to take work as a nanny. Her employer notes that she was polite and good to the children but in retrospect there was something wrong with Laurence and she tried to emotionally blackmail her. Her relationship with Luc Dumontet (Xavier Malu) the father of Elise, further caused her to disappear. Luc did not ever introduce her to his family, and in a particularly appalling incident had Laurence cook for his legitimate daughter’s wedding but hid her away from the guests. Luc testifies that he loved Laurence but paints her as an unreasonably jealous woman. When her pregnancy which she neither announced nor hid becomes apparent to Luc neither parent does anything official about it. Laurence gives birth alone in the studio she has barely left in her entire relationship with Laurence. She does not register Elise’s birth, nor does she take her daughter to the doctor when she contracts chicken pox.

Rama herself is four months pregnant and is finding the trial overwhelming as she notes the similarities and distinct differences between herself and Laurence. Like Laurence she is deeply intelligent, like Laurence she has a fractured relationship with her mother. Like Laurence, she is neither African nor French enough. She begins to break down in her hotel room as memories of her relationship with her mother resurge. Eventually her partner Adrien joins her in Saint-Omer, and she admits that she is afraid of becoming like “her” and for a beat the audience isn’t sure who “her” is. Is it Laurence? Rama’s fear is that she will become like her mother – a woman whose identity eroded in France.

Claire Mathon shoots the film with a canny eye for realism but also instils the visual language of Rama’s emotional uncertainty. Flashing back to Rama and Seynabou through Rama’s childhood and teen years where the daughter sees her mother lost and broken gives the film a dreamlike quality (so too the opening sequence) but also enforces its psychological authenticity.

Laurence’s advocate, Maître Vaudenay gives a devastating closing argument. Laurence up until that point has been stoic and seemingly unmoved but is reduced to tears for the first time. Vaudenay tells the story of chimerical cells that travel from a foetus’ body into the mother, and how those cells create a bond between mother and child that changes their very physiology. “All women are monsters” she says. Odile Diatta, Laurence’s mother has been a kind of monster feeding off her daughter and defining her by her “education and politesse,” but is also perversely thrilled by how much media attention the trial is getting. Seynabou’s depression was a monstrous burden on Rama. Was Laurence afraid that she too is a monster, or that Elise would become one whether by sorcery or society? Is Rama afraid that she will pass down something she cannot speak of to her child?

Diop doesn’t finish the film with the sentencing of Laurence. The court room appears empty and to an extent Laurence’s story is one of many women. There is no resolution. There are no answers. What Diop does provide is a window into the experience of women who for whatever reason fall through the cracks. Laurence wanted to be a famous philosopher “I wanted to leave my mark. Certain things have made me stray from my path,” she says. Although she cannot properly articulate what those things were, or why a Cartesian thinker would use superstition as a defence for infanticide. Laurence Coly is an insoluble mystery even to herself.

Diop spoke to Variety about making Saint Omer: “I wanted to recreate my experience of listening to another woman’s story while interrogating myself, facing my own difficult truths. The narrative had to trace a series of emotional states that can lead to catharsis. It’s like accelerated psychotherapy.”

When the final music plays, Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue” and Rama in tears leaves the courtroom we have witnessed a devastating portrait of alienation, loneliness, and fear that extends beyond Laurence and Rama and holds its hand out to a multitude of women. Women who are invisible, women who have no place to call home, women who have to fight both their gender and their race to be given grace. Diop’s film is no simple courtroom drama but a searing document of social and political “otherness” that comes from an imbalanced society. Saint Omer is complex and like Laurence Coly (or Fabienne Kabou) leaves the audience with vital considerations. We will never really know why Laurence laid her infant on the beach in Berck-sur-Mer to be swept away by the tide, but we do understand why it was at first assumed that the infant’s body was that of an illegal immigrant who drowned on their way to France. Diop’s film is no mythical revenge tale, there is no Medea, it is a story of a real woman, and it is also her own story. Saint Omer is unforgettable and crucial. It does not forgive Coly, but it begs us to understand how such a terrible crime happened, and all the events that were not seen as criminal because they are baked into the fabric of society led to tragedy.

Director: Alice Diop

Cast: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Valérie Dréville

Writers: Amrita David, Alice Diop, Zoé Galeron, Marie N’Diaye

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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