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‘Saint Omer’ Review: Alice Diop Crafts a Spellbinding Courtroom Drama



The details of the case are grim. On a chilly November day in 2013, Fabienne Kanou surrendered her 15-month-old daughter, Adélaïde, to the sea. She chose the shores of Berck-sur-Mer because of its linguistic proximity to impurity: “Berck” sounded like “Beurk,” the French word for “yuck.”

Later, when asked by the police for her motive, Kanou replied cryptically, “It was simpler that way.” During her trial in 2016, she attributed her actions to malevolent forces. Nothing in her story made sense, she said. “Even a stupid person would not do what I did.”

Saint Omer

The Bottom Line

An enthralling narrative debut.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Valérie Dréville, Aurélia Petit
Director: Alice Diop
Screenwriters: Alice Diop, Amrita David, Marie Ndiaye

2 hours 3 minutes

Kanou’s case enraptured France for its peculiarity and harshness. The woman was a graduate student with a genius level IQ. White media outlets chronicling the trial liked to note her eloquence; they could not, it seems, reconcile Kanou’s race and rhetorical prowess, her calm presentation and horrifying action. Alice Diop’s obsession with Kanou’s chilling story began after seeing a photo of the young Franco-Senegalese mother in a newspaper. The French director (Nous) devoured information about the accused and attended the trial in the northeastern French town of Saint-Omer.

The fruits of Diop’s compulsive labor are laid bare in her beguiling narrative debut. Saint Omerwhich premieres at Venice in competition, is a spellbinding chamber drama about the isolation of motherhood, the grief of parenting and racial interpellation.

Infanticide occupies a strange place in cultural imaginations because of its seeming impossibility: Why would a mother kill her child? Diop’s film joins a long tradition of artistic speculation fueled by that basic question. Although operating in a different social context, its framework brings to mind Toni Morrison’s sentiments about her own exploration of infanticide. Morrison wrote her 1987 novel Beloved because she was fascinated by “this compulsion to nurture, this ferocity that a woman has to be responsible for her children and, at the same time, the kind of tension that exists in trying to be a separate and complete individual,” she said once during an interview.

Rama (Kayije Kagame), the Franco-Senegalese novelist at the center of Saint Omer, shares Morrison’s curiosities. In fact, she is haunted by them. The professor, whom we see lecturing a group of students on Marguerite Duras at the start of the film, is not explicitly Diop, but like the director, the character is preoccupied by a similar infanticide case. At work on a modern-day adaptation of the myth of Medea, Rama embarks on a research trip to observe the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a young woman who killed her 15-month-old daughter in Saint-Omer.

Through a compact introduction — Rama dismissing her lecture, going home to meet her white husband Adrien (Thomas de Pourquery) and paying an obligatory visit to her mother and sister — Diop efficiently sketches our protagonist’s life. Rama has a contentious relationship with her mother; their communication is made up almost entirely of deep silences. The gulf between mother and daughter not only holds decades of tangled sentiments — it also drives Rama’s interest in Laurence’s case.

Rama’s own pregnancy — which she keeps from her mother — layers her considerations of motherhood. The young professor does not know her mother, but she fears becoming her. We catch glimpses of the two women’s limited interactions over the years through brief, heartbreaking flashbacks. The silences land differently in these scenes as it becomes clear that Rama’s mother faces challenges unknown to her daughter. These forays into the past are crucial, but ultimately secondary to Laurence’s trial, which Diop, along with her co-writers Amrita David and the French novelist Marie Ndiaye, use as a canvas for the film’s broader themes.

Saint Omer might be fiction, but Diop does not stray too far from her documentary roots. The film maintains a sense of naturalism even during its most tense moments. Diop’s directing style leans observational, as if she is watching and recording her screenplay’s effect on her performers. As for the proceedings, Diop chose to film them in a room next to the actual courtroom she sat in during Kanou’s trial. The resplendent interior, with its wood paneled walls, ornate windows and floods of sunlight beaming in, sharply juxtaposes with the provincial town just outside.

When Laurence stoically walks into this room and faces the judge (Valérie Dréville), who introduces her to the court by relaying information gathered from police reports and subsequent investigations, her face gleams under the sun’s rays. Despite the mountains of evidence against her, the young woman maintains her innocence, surprising both the judge and the court observers.

Specifically, Laurence does not know why she killed her child. She blames her actions on witchcraft and hopes the court will give her answers. Over the days-long trial, through questions from both her lawyer Ms. Vaudenay (Aurélia Petit) and the prosecutor (Robert Cantarella), Laurence recounts a life of relative privilege and unenviable pressure. Her mother, Odile Diatta (Salimata Kamate), who sits in the front row, and her father, who skips the trial, were obsessed with her success. Their desire for Laurence to become a perfect Frenchwoman — to maintain proper decorum, to never speak Wolof — isolated her from her peers. When she moved to France, she thought she would be free.

But instead of liberation, Laurence found only more trouble. She changed her course of study from law to philosophy, a decision that led her father to cut her off financially. Without a home or job prospects, she moved in with her then boyfriend, Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maley), a diffident sculptor with the dramatic self-loathing of a coward. He hid Laurence from his wife, daughter and entire social world. When she became pregnant with her daughter, Lili, Laurence felt an already narrow world close in around her.

In casting mostly theater actors, Diop has assembled an assured cadre of performers. They play off each other with ease, especially during the courtroom scenes, which are sparse and thick with tension. But it’s Malanda as Laurence who is the most arresting. She deftly doles out her character’s testimony, manipulating her facial expressions and body language in a way that gestures towards Laurence’s complexity. Under the steady composure, the young mother hides a web of complicated feelings and a capricious, self-deluding narrative.

Saint Omer‘s power comes from its subtlety — the way characters sneak glances at each other in the courtroom, the intensity of their stares, the way their tone changes depending on the audience, how they construct their stories. These details destabilize what, at first, seems like a fixed narrative, prompting us to ask questions beyond innocence and guilt, truth and lies.

Laurence’s testimony and trial are a well of revelations about whom society chooses to understand and empathize with. The legal proceedings, which initially unfold slowly, become feverish as the prosecuting attorney grows more impatient with the woman on the stand. His agitated tone coupled with the racist implications of his statements reach untenable heights for Rama, who finds himself nauseated by the trial’s direction.

Saint Omer deals in indirectness, which might be frustrating for viewers expecting a straightforward courtroom drama. It is more literary study than anything else, a project interested in protean narratives and how language can be manipulated to expand or constrict identities. The trial, Rama’s fraught relationship with her mother, the presiding attorneys’ emotional response or lack thereof — these are not just windows allowing viewers to observe another life; they are mirrors, too.

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