Saint Omer, review: a haunting study of a mother’s unforgivable crime

Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is accused of murdering her 15-month-old daughter in Saint Omer
Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is accused of murdering her 15-month-old daughter in Saint Omer

Saint Omer doesn’t announce itself as a courtroom drama until we are seated, after a prologue involving Rama (Kayije Kagame), a pregnant, disconsolate writer of Senegalese heritage, who travels from Paris to the title town, in the northernmost tip of France, to observe proceedings. She’s the stand-in for the filmmaker, Alice Diop, a documentarist whose first fiction feature this is, and who might have covered the 2016 trial of Fabienne Kabou as non-fiction, had the court allowed it to be recorded.

For a week, Diop heard Kabou’s testimony about leaving her 15-month-old daughter to drown on a beach in Berck-sur-Mer, a crime for which she had no cogent explanation. For the sake of this film, she is Laurence Coly, a highly educated French-Senegalese philosophy student, whose life story the court learns, in an attempt to probe the mysterious depths of her psyche.

She is played with extraordinary, guarded intensity by Guslagie Malanda, an actress who conveys self-recrimination by seeming to erect a wall against it, and sometimes lets the spike of her gaze land on the very people whose failings towards her she describes. Her complex relationship with her own mother is explored, as is the role of the child’s much older father (Xavier Maly), a frail white man, prone to mawkish manipulation in court, who had concealed the existence of this second family from his first one.

Three times, Laurence takes the stand, in long sequences where the judge (Valérie Dréville) and her barrister (Aurélia Petit) guide her towards reckoning with the most tragic act a mother can commit. She admits that trying to explain it is what she personally hopes the trial will achieve, and despite the chasm of understanding that’s our starting point, the film gets closer, perhaps as close as it can, to her broken state of mind.

All the while, Rama is a silent witness being affected unfathomably by the other woman’s experience, as a pregnant, first-generation African immigrant grappling with her own mother’s bitter sacrifices and the cycle she’s carrying on. She’s been commissioned to work up a literary account of Laurence’s case, a retelling of the Medea story; in the course of research she finds Pasolini’s 1969 film, with Maria Callas in the role, and watches an excerpt online.

Rama grasps with terrible clarity how the myth still pertains, and yet she’s a powerless observer: the worst, with Laurence’s mutterings of witchcraft, has already happened. In the speechless communion between these two, who only once lock gaze in court, Diop imagines a conversation where they see each other like no one else, casting a psychic spell which haunts Rama’s sleep, and might change her life. The film mounts its thesis while hardly needing to verbalise what’s going on: it mesmerises by reaching inside them to listen, even while others talk.

12A cert, 123 min. In cinemas now