Filmmaker Alice Diop puts her experience as a documentarian to excellent use in her first dramatic feature, the thought-provoking, heartbreakingly realistic Saint Omer. Based on the real-life case of Fabienne Kabou, a French student of Senegalese origin who stood trial in 2016 for the death of her 15-month-old daughter, the sobering film explores the challenges of motherhood, the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, the impact of cultural influence, and the nature of identity.
Saint Omer approaches the trial of Kabou stand-in Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) through the eyes of Parisian novelist/professor Rama (Kayije Kagame) — herself the daughter of a Senegalese immigrant — who travels to the titular seaside town to observe the proceedings as research for her upcoming book, a retelling of Madea. Feeling unsettled by her own impending motherhood (she’s four months pregnant) and her uneven history with her sometimes-harsh mother, Rama’s emotional response to Laurence’s story hits her hard.
As Laurence recounts feeling isolated in her relationship with the much older Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly) and voices her belief that it was Senegalese sorcery that led her to leave her vulnerable toddler alone on the beach to be swept away by the tides, Rama finds herself doubting her readiness for parenthood and reconsidering memories of her mother from her youth. Diop films the scenes of Laurence and Luc’s testimony simply, letting their convincing performances and powerful words (many adapted from real-life trial transcripts) — and those of the other trial participants — speak for themselves. It’s impossible not to question Laurence’s reliability as a narrator, but it’s also impossible to believe she’s a cold-blooded child killer.
Ultimately, what Saint Omer shows us is that people are flawed and fragile, and that we all have a need to be seen and acknowledged. Our choices and our actions define us, but we can’t always explain why we do what we do. In a world that seeks clear-cut motivations and easy places to lay blame, the complexity of personal history and traumatic lived experience means that there are shades of gray everywhere we look. Diop understands this and lets this powerful, painful true story speak for itself.– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Jamie Broadnax: Alice Diop’s beautifully structured chamber piece Saint Omer, unveils a compelling performance by Guslagie Malanda. It is one of the most emotionally charged foreign language legal dramas I’ve seen in quite some time. Guslagie Malanda plays Laurance Coly, a woman on trial for infanticide and the narrative digs deep metaphorically and literally into areas of matriarchy, feminism, motherhood and sexuality. Guslagie Malanda’s deadpan stare throughout her gut-wrenching performance will give you goosebumps. Her character is a conundrum of mythical subtext that will keep your interest piqued throughout the film’s running time as you are curious to unpack what exactly possessed this woman to commit such a heinous crime.
Leslie Combemale It’s always wonderful to see American audiences exposed to the talents of international performers. In Saint Omer, audiences around the world get to see Guslagie Malanda, who was introduced to French audiences in Jean-Paul Civeyac’s 2014 film Mon Amie Victoria. Certainly no woman who watches Saint Omer will be immune to this powerful story, (especially since it’s based on a real case), and the internal questions the film raises about womanhood and motherhood. Of course race, too, is at the story’s center, and how could it not be, given that co-screenwriter and director Alice Diop is Senegalese, like both Saint Omer’s lead characters and defendant Fabienne Kabou of the real-life case that inspired her film? Though this is Diop’s first narrative feature, the audience is in good hands. Women, many of them women of color, figure in every aspect of the film both in front of and behind the camera, and it’s once again, or should I say, still, such a unique pleasure to be absorbed in a cinematic experience centering that perspective.
Sherin Nicole If the defense attorney in Saint Omer is right: If mothers are chimeras, it is because society requires women to segment ourselves into disparate and often opposing parts, while holding that fragmented mass together. We are defined by what we’re told is an innate magnetism to maternity and if we are unmoved then something must be wrong. In a somber and enigmatic narrative, Saint Omer dissects two women on opposite sides of motherhood. Set primarily in a courtroom, the film is incisive and yet honey-toned in pacing and aesthetics. The effect is a bittersweet lure for audiences that is enhanced by the stoic yet quietly crumbling lead performances from Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanda.
Loren King Saint Omer gradually and with subtlety peels back layers to reveal issues of culture and class, racism and misogyny, motherhood and daughterhood, and how Black women struggle to be seen in relationships, families, countries, courts. There is no cathartic conclusion. But Saint Omer ends on a compelling note with Nina Simone’s haunting rendition of Little Girl Blue which never sounded so sorrowful yet defiant. Read full review.
Nell Minow: The title of the film is not what we might expect for a carefully composed story of a woman being tried for killing her child. Why name the film after the place, and not the characters or the crime? Because this is not a story that is intended to give us some kind of answer about he most unthinkable of acts. It is a story that acknowledges there is no real explanation, but that it is the responsibility of all of us to pay attention to the must vulnerable, to do our best to make sure we see those around us and help when we can.
Jennifer Merin Filmmaker Alice Diop’s truth-based narrative film focuses on the story of Fabienne Kabou, a young Senegalese woman on trial for infanticide. She is charged with abandoning her infant on the seashore to be swept away by the waves. With a documentarian’s artistic sensibility and subtextual thematic intent, Diop collaborated with writers Amrita David and Marie Ndiaye to rework actual transcribed dialogue from Fabienne Kabou’s court case. She shot the film in an exact recreation of the actual courtroom where the Kabou trial took place. Her cast includes professional and amateur actors, as well as non-actors, who were given minimal direction in the performance of their roles. The result is a stunningly authentic and impactful drama that profoundly challenges knee-jerk notions about female social roles, motherhood and other feminist concerns. Note that the AWFJ membership has nominated Saint Omer forthe 2022 EDA Award for Best Non-English Language Film.
Liz Whittemore Mirroring generational trauma exposes itself through a thin line between truth and lies. Saint Omer boasts magnificent performances. Their melancholy and measured delivery gets under your skin. The dialogue is heartbreaking to witness as a mother. But don’t be fooled, as Saint Omer overflows with complexity. The ultimate emotional bait-and-switch occurs in the film’s climax, arriving in a startling “fourth wall” break by Laurence’s lawyer in the final arguments. She speaks to the jury about judgment and justice, but in truth, this monologue is a punch straight into the viewer’s gut. There is no doubt that France’s entry for Best International Feature is here to shake things up.
Cate Marquis Director Alice Diop’s hypnotic French language drama Saint Omer has a female novelist who is working on a new project inspired by the play Medea attending the trial of woman accused of killing her toddler by leaving her on a beach at night, to be swept away by the tide. The scenario is based on a real crime and court case, blending the real with the imagined. The two women in the story have certain parallels – both of African descent, with difficult relationships with their mothers and the writer is pregnant. What looks at first like a standard courtroom drama spins off into stranger, surreal territory, as woman on trial weaves a odd and contradictory tale, while the writer becomes both drawn in and set adrift by what she learns, in this perceptive meditation on how women and motherhood are viewed through a lens of culture and race.
Title: Saint Omer
Directors: Alice Diop
Release Date: January 13, 2023
Running Time: 122 minutes
Language: French with English subtitles
Screenwriters: Alice Diop, Amrita David, Marie N’Diaye, Zoé Galeron
Distribution Company: Wild Bunch International
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
Edited by Jennifer Merin