‘Saint Omer’ Is an Unforgettable Film That Deserves Oscars Attention
Alice Diop’s Saint Omer is a movie about a trial. But it is not strictly concerned with the question of innocence or guilt as a problem of the law. Far more complex, the movie finds, is the problem of how we should feel about the moral authority of the question — and the moral authority of the domain in which it can be asked. It is a movie about language and testimony, mothers and daughters, and the specific burden of a Black immigrant woman who finds herself subjected to the French legal gaze. It sets before us what is at first glance an inarguable evil — the murder of a child — and asks us to confront, not only what we do not understand, but the terms of that understanding. How it is that a court full of people who’ve not only deemed you a monster, but also an “other” — an outlier to their way of life — may arrive at that understanding, or not.
The woman on trial, Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), is a native of Senegal who came to France to study philosophy. Wittgenstein. Instead she found a country whose difficulties only inspired in her a grave sense of isolation and anger. Her story is that she fell in with an older French man, named Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly), and entered into a dispiriting romance that would only result in more isolation. It would also result in a child. Coly has been charged with leaving that child on a beach in Berck-sur-Mer, during a high tide. She does not deny doing this; she will testify to all of it. But when she is asked for her plea, she pleads not guilty. She says that she does not think she is the responsible party in this crime. Early on, she is asked why she killed her daughter. “I don’t know,” she tells the judge. “I hope that this trial will give me the answer.”
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That we know anything about her at all is in part because of the format of the trial, predicated on long dispatches of testimony by Laurence while under questioning by a panel of three judges, a prosecutor, and her defense. It is also thanks to Diop’s extremely subtle staging and framing of these proceedings, beginning with our views of the woman that this movie is more directly about: a novelist and professor named Rama (Kayije Kagame), who has come to this trial with an interest in turning it into a literary retelling of the Medea myth. Rama wants to call her project “Medea Castaway.” (She is advised against this title.) She enters the space of the court as an onlooker who is unprepared for what Laurence Coly’s story is going to stir up in her. Or maybe she is here precisely because she sees the signs, sees the similarities, and knows where this may take her — maybe that was her attraction to this story, all along.
Either way, what unfolds in Saint Omer is an unpredictable, psychologically tense inquiry into the inner lives of these two women: one of them on trial, the other a witness, both of them educated Black women, both mixed up in the problem of immigrant identity in a complex nation, both the daughters of mothers whose flaws color their relationships to themselves and the broader world, far into each woman’s adulthood. What unfolds is a narrative that would almost feel procedural — it is largely set in court and lends much of its runtime to the testimonies and questions that occur in that space — but for the clarity of Diop’s intentions.
The script, co-written with Amrita David, packs entire felt histories into the sparest of monologues. From Laurence, during the trial, we hear the story of a childhood that was relatively privileged, of parents whose affections were not always felt, and a mother in particular (who attends the trial) whose emphasis on European politesse and success demanded that young Laurence abandon Wolof and other cultural ties to their home in Dakar. We hear of her loneliness while studying philosophy, and of the path that landed her in the studio of an older man with a family who never grew to treat her like family, let alone an equal. She tells us about her conception of her child. And about her sense — on which it seems that this trial will hinge — that she has more or less been cursed. You can feel the fractures in this already. How can a woman who speaks educated French, who arrived to study philosophy, who therefore seems willing to agree to and perform Western values, still believe that she has been cursed? Why — a representative from her school asks — would a Black woman study Wittgenstein? How can a woman claim to love a child but hide that child, and the fact of her pregnancy, from everyone around her?
It’s like watching this story in double vision. Diop’s camera is intently focused on faces — particularly Rama’s, who is so in keyed into these proceedings that moments arrive in which the sound of the court proceeding dims and the audio zeroes in on the taut rhythm of her breathing. Diop slowly builds the brick house of Laurence’s personal narrative up only to give us a court that will systematically tease it apart. The faces she offers us throughout — of the judges, the lawyers, Laurence, Rama, Laurence’s mother, the jury (none of them Black) and the other guests in the court (most of them white) — amplify the sense of examination. The trial becomes an occasion to weigh Laurence’s truth against what it considers to be the truth. And in the gap between those frames, Saint Omer suggests, a world of understanding is lost. Laurence describes isolation, confusion, lostness. What she is confronted with are inconsistencies in her own telling. What we come to understand is her means of rejecting this country are wielded, in court, as examples of negligence.
Diop’s direction of Saint Omer is spare in style but dense in emotional intelligence, heavy with its own inquiries. The visual set-ups seem simple, but they are constantly carving away at the harrowing question of what people are thinking. What it is that this volley between Laurence and the law is making people feel. That is where Rama comes in. The story begins and ends with her. Unlike Laurence, she exists outside of this courtroom. Sharing a space with Laurence, in the room of the court, encourages an encounter between these two womens’ stories that’s one of the most remarkable feats in a movie I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s in the way that Diop encourages us to look back at what we know of Rama, in light of what we learn of Laurence. Suffice to say there are echoes in these women’s stories — that the ways it overwhelms Rama as she watches, inciting brief flashbacks within the movie to her own childhood and the harshness of her own mother, is both to be expected and still surprising. So much of what Saint Omer wants us to understand is in its approach to the fates of the Black mothers it depicts. So much of what it has to say about the experience of immigrants, in particular, is in the echoes we encounter in these women’s stories. How much of her own mother does Rama see in Laurence? And of herself? And then there’s the other tie — an unexpected encounter with Laurence’s mother, who singles her out as the only other Black woman in the court (beyond Laurence). It leads to one of the movie’s best, briefest scenes — a flash of this woman’s mothering that explains Laurence in terms that Rama is unusually positioned to understand.
There are pathways of empathy in this movie, in other words. And the key to Diop’s movie is in understanding how these pathways brush up against, even totally subvert, the court’s intentions. The trial’s interest is in the what, why, how. Rama is attuned to other questions. Alongside her, bearing witness to the same testimony, with Rama’s own experience in mind and buttressing the trial, we are encouraged to place Laurence in a new context — a context that this courtroom cannot, even when sympathetic, understand. The concerns of the court overwhelm nevertheless. This is as true of the movie as it is of real life. Saint Omer was in fact drawn from real life. It was inspired by the 2016 trial of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese student who, like Laurence, left a well-off childhood in Dakar for the unknowns of France and, again like her fictional counterpart, was a brilliant student who set out to study philosophy before becoming tied to a Frenchman 30 years her senior. “Witchcraft,” claimed Kabou at her trial, held in the town of Berck-sur-Mer. “That’s my default explanation because I have no other.”
This arises in Saint Omer, too. A psychological report indicates that Laurence is prone to hallucinations. But again the facts, bare and cold, brush against the fuller, more complex truth. Saint Omer wants us to question this diagnosis — rather, it wants us to see that if Laurence is out of her mind, it is worth wondering how she got there. How it is that her time in this country may have driven her to a despair that may not be visible to everyone witnessing it.
The actors in this film prove indispensable. Malanda, in particular, is given a heavy task. Her entire performance as Laurence exists, for us, within the walls of this courtroom; her speech is limited to what she has been tasked to provide to the court. Nothing that we hear her say or see her do in this film, beyond a brief glimpse at its start, is entirely of her own free will. Instead Malanda must create for us a full idea of this woman from only her court testimony. And what a performance it is. Laurence faces the judge and attorneys’ questions with a stolidness, for the most part, that verges on a trance. She eases through her monologues with a studied seriousness that, as the movie wears on, becomes more masklike and impenetrable. By then, we’ve come to understand things about her, if only by association, that complicate the idea of that mask. But we also confront the sense, felt throughout the trial, of a woman who cannot be understood in this space. We are only too aware of that lacking understanding in the room. Diop finds ways to expose what the courtroom cannot see. We can see it: the calmness in Laurence that is more like a desaturated fury, where the traces of her grief and anger are felt, are barely cloaked by a gaze that to other eyes seems to express nothing at all. We see that same gaze in Rama. We see, through these women, a world of anguish over the question of who, as Black women, they are in this European otherland.
“This is a story of a phantom woman,” says Laurence’s attorney in her closing argument. “A woman whom nobody sees.” And yet her crime makes her visible — to the law. It makes her culpable. Punishable. Saint Omer pushes us to understand how much of Laurence Coly nevertheless remains completely out of view of the court — out of view of even a film that labors to make her visible. By the time her attorney likens her to a phantom, it is almost shocking: We have spent much of the preceding two hours looking directly at her, peering into her expressions in order to read them, being persuaded into conflict with her testimony by the facts of the trial. The question of guilt is submerged within all of this effort. It is buried by the sense of release that comes late in the movie — a stunning closing monologue that leaves much of the court in tears. Laurence does not deny killing her child, and nor does Diop’s movie. Our attention, instead, is thrown back onto our moral need for a monster, and onto what we deny of humanity in seeking to punish one. Laurence killed her child. But after a film such as this, how can anyone feel innocent?
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