Saint Omer is a moving, intelligent film depicting the trial of a young Senegalese woman, Laurence Coly (played by Guslagie Malanda), who is accused of infanticide by leaving her daughter to drown on a beach at night at 15 months of age. Coly admits the facts surrounding her child’s death but pleads not guilty and when asked why she did it, she tells the court that she is hoping the trial may reveal that for her.
The trial involves an exploration of the accused’s childhood and her relationships with her parents and with the father of the child that she’s accused of murdering. On several occasions throughout the trial, Coly refers to sorcery and a spell that she believes her Aunt cast on her and her family in Senegal.
Laurence claims to have had daily telephone calls with clairvoyants and spiritual healers in the lead-up to her killing her daughter yet there are no financial or telephone records to back them up. The Prosecution’s case is that she knew what she was doing and that the child was merely an inconvenience to her and the reference to sorcery and spells was merely a convenient defence strategy. This is not a woman who is mad but a woman who is manipulative and calculating the Prosecution asserts.
Laurence is expressionless for most of the film. Yet, despite showing little emotion, we tend to believe that she was not thinking clearly when she decided to give her daughter up to the tides. Guslagie Malanda portrays this troubled character convincingly considering the limitations of the little emotion the character shows. The Prosecution occasionally makes us question her testimony but overarchingly we feel for Laurence.
Attending the trial is Rama (played by Kayije Kagame in her feature film debut), a Senegalese literature lecturer, who is writing a book about the trial – seeing the accused as a modern day Medea (a woman from Greek mythology, who killed her sons in an act of revenge against their father). However, listening to the testimony, day in and day out, has a profound effect on her, forcing her to question her own relationship with her mother, particularly as she is pregnant and just like the accused has chosen not to tell anybody about the pregnancy, except for her partner.
Rama’s reflections are depicted through flashbacks to moments of her childhood – coming home with menstrual blood on her white pants and being told to get out of the room by her mother who was ironing; her mother placing chocolate powder (a popular French children’s breakfast choice, mixed with a bowl of warm milk) on the table without saying a word to her or even making eye contact with her, even though she was standing right there, and then leaving the room.
Racist views imposed on the accused are evident. For example, there is the thesis supervisor called as a witness who tells the court that could not understand why a black woman would choose Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher as her subject and not a matter “close from her own culture”. References are made to how well- spoken she is, something that Rama dismisses and corrects as simply speaking the way in which someone who is educated does.
While not stated explicitly as such, Saint Omer is largely inspired by the 2016 trial of Fabienne Kabou, a young Senegalese woman accused of infanticide of her 15 month old daughter by leaving her to drown on a beach at Berck-sur-Mer. In fact, much of the dialogue that occurs in Laurence Coy’s trial in the film is taken directly from the transcripts from Kabou’s trial. The film takes its name from the city in which the trial occurred and it was in fact filmed in the very courthouse, but an adjacent courtroom to that in which Kabou was tried.
While the character Rama is fictional, director Alice Diop acknowledges that she was inspired by her own experience of attending the Kabou trial, and that she undoubtedly has some characteristics and traits in common with her.
Those sitting in the public gallery during the trial in Saint Omer are not actors but
“real spectators from the town, the actors played a documentary text, in a replayed documentary reality, there was no “Action!”, no “Cut!”. We shot in chronological order, which means the actors re-lived the trial. So, it’s a combination of something extremely stylised – the sets – extremely staged – the temporality of the shots– with something totally documentary-like: the way it is filmed, and to urge the actors to summon an absolutely documentary emotion.” explains Alice Diop.
Saint Omer also makes apparent the way in which criminal trials are conducted in France. Here, instead of a prosecution case being presented followed by a defence case being presented, it is largely the Judge who conducts the trial – running through the evidence in the case, the witness statements and asking questions of the accused and the witnesses. Prosecution and defence counsel are permitted to examine the witnesses also but it is in stark contrast to the way in which cases are run in Common Law countries like Australia.
Whereas you can read the real verdict of Fabienne Kabou in any articles online, Diop chose not to show the verdict of Laurence Coly in her film Saint Omer. Whether the jury found her guilty or not was not of importance to the director. Instead, it was left for the audience to make their own minds up. Is this a woman who is carefully constructing a story about sorcery while knowingly and calculatingly killing her own child? Or is this a woman who was so severely depressed and mentally incapacitated to the point of madness that she was driven to do it?
Director Alice Diop when asked about not putting in a verdict in Saint Omer said to Above the Line:
I am not interested in the question of whether she’s guilty or not. There is no mystery or suspense since from the beginning, we acknowledge that she is guilty. So, it could not be built with the usual suspense of a criminal inquiry. What fascinated me, when I witnessed the trial for the film, [was] the incredible complexity or capacity of this person, this woman.
At several moments throughout Saint Omer, we hear the sound of someone breathing, whether it be Rama alone in her hotel room at the conclusion of the day’s proceedings or while sitting in court listening to the testimony. In fact, apart from dialogue and ambient noises, there is very little music except in the last third of the film.
Saint Omer was Alice Diop’s debut feature film. It was France’s official nomination for Best International Feature at the Academy Awards 2023. An impressive feat for a director’s first feature film! In France, it won the award for Best First Film (Meilleur premier film) and was nominated in three other categories: Guslagie Malanda for Most Promising Actress (Meilleur espoir feminin) for her portrayal of the accused, Best Original Screenplay (Meilleur scenario original) and Best Cinematorgraphy (Meilleure photographie).
Saint Omer has seen a lot of success outside of France also winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival 2022, Best film at the Seville European and Geneva International Film Festivals 2022and Best Picture at the Palm Springs Film Festival.
Saint Omer is a film which forces you to think about the way in which you view women, and in particular women from cultures that are not you own. Even more so, when confronted with them being accused of horrific acts and making references to beliefs and malevolent forces that Western culture does not believe in. It is also a film about mother-daughter relationships and the impact these can have on the daughter’s own future relationship with their own daughter. Saint Omer is a powerful courtroom, but also human, drama which will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.
Matilda Marseillaise was a guest of Palace Films at an advanced media screening of the film.
Saint Omer was released in France in late November 2022 and made its Australian debut at the Alliance Française French Film Festival in March 2023. The film is being released by Palace Films nationwide from Thursday 25 May 2023.
Two other films from the AFFFF have since been released: The Innocent and November
You may also like read our other reviews of AFFFF films:
A good Doctor delivers a dose of hilarity in the unexpected
Country Cabaret: a fun farm film to see at AFFFF 2023
Everybody Loves Jeanne: a funny and touching exploration of our inner thoughts and overcoming grief
Final Cut: a comedic zombie film that’s even for people who don’t like horror or gore
Happy 50 – THIS FILM IS BEING RELEASED ON 8 JUNE 2023
Jack Mimoun and the Secrets of Val Verde is a fun adventure
In On the wandering paths, Jean Dujardin takes the path less travelled
Ride Above is an inspiring, but predictable, film about finding the courage to ride again
Silver Rockers: a film inspired by the story of rocker retirees from Normandy
Sugar and Stars: an inspiring tale about the road to sweet success
The Colours of Fire: an heiress seeks revenge
The Origin of Evil is a must-see film this AFFFF – THIS FILM IS BEING RELEASED in MID 2023
The Tasting is a film with depth and elegance
Umami is a feature film that should have been a short
For events with links to France, French language and culture and the francophonie happening in Australia this month, check out our What’s on in May.