Euripides’ Medea has been adapted countless times over, and yet Alice Diop breathes urgent and timely life into the Greek classic with Saint Omer, a blistering drama about a young immigrant woman charged with murdering her infant daughter and the novelist who attends the trial with a plan to turn the tale into a book. Told primarily through testimonial dialogue from the accused, a judge and witnesses, it’s a morally complex affair defined by faces, expressions and words, at once unsparing and compassionate, sparse and subtly evocative. Inspired by the real-life 2016 case of Fabienne Kanou, it’s a haunting (and haunted) film that exists both on the screen and, in another sense, inside one’s mind, and it’s there that it takes up lasting residence, challenging one’s idea of innocence and guilt and gnawing at one’s sense of right and wrong,
Premiering at the New York Film Festival following critically hailed debuts at the Venice and Toronto fests—not to mention France’s entry for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Oscars—Saint Omer initially focuses on Rama (Kayije Kagame), a Paris-born professor and writer whose parents are of Senegalese descent and who’s in a committed relationship with a Caucasian man named Adrian (Thomas de Pourquery). Rama is tall, slender and has a look of near perpetual sorrowful detachment, such that it’s not surprising when one of her sisters, at an afternoon get-together, remarks that she was always reserved. It’s not her siblings, however, who cause Rama grief; rather, it’s her mother, a cold and stern widow whose silence during this meeting speaks volumes about her disposition and attitude toward her daughter—which is likely why, over a meal, Adrian alludes to making renovations at their home (a hint about a forthcoming baby) and Rama cuts it off, not wanting to broach the topic with her mom.
Co-written by Amrita David and Marie Ndiaye, Saint Omer sporadically flashes back to Rama’s childhood with this harsh matriarch via dialogue-free sequences that appear and disappear with almost unconscious fluidity, and which are infused with anger, fear, distress, and tension. Diop says little but conveys much in these fleeting interludes, filling in the gaps of a mother-daughter relationship strained by decades of alienation, misery, and trauma. Much talking follows, though, once Rama travels from Paris to Saint-Omer to sit in the audience for the prosecution of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), a Senegalese mother who’s admitted to taking her 15-month-old daughter Elise to Berck, where she left her on the beach to be washed away by the tide. Laurence doesn’t dispute the facts of this heinous crime, nor her culpability (regarding others’ disgust over her “baby killer” conduct, she confesses, “I share their horror”). Nonetheless, she’s pleaded not guilty, and it’s that defense which transfixes Rama and makes up the majority of Diop’s film.
With a round face and eyes that veer from pained to enraged, Malanga is an arrestingly cagey center of attention. Once Laurence takes the stand, she’s interrogated by a judge (Valérie Dréville) and also, on intermittent occasions, by defense and prosecution attorneys. The evidence she gives is her life story, which begins with her difficult upbringing in Senegal with a callous mother and equally demanding father who prioritized her education and eventually sent her to university in France so she could become a doctor. A switch in majors (to philosophy) soon damaged her bond with her parents, and when a nanny job fell through after she was financially cut off by her dad, the 24-year-old Laurence turned to Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly), an apparently cruel and oppressive 57-year-old white man with whom she commenced a romantic and sexual affair, this despite the fact that he was decades her senior and remained in constant contact with his ex-wife, with whom he had a daughter.
Laurence’s narrative is one of abandonment, shame, displacement and loneliness, brought about first by her mother and then by Luc, who she says hid her away out of humiliation and refused to accept paternity for their child. It’s a stirring account of mistreatment that, like the entire film, is laced with overt and covert racial and ethnic prejudices—the issue of the dark-skinned Laurence’s eloquence and decorum is a frequent, pointed subject—as well as domineering misogyny. Saint Omer, however, avoids easy answers. In Luc’s self-serving testimony, in some of the facts introduced by the judge and prosecutor (which reveal Laurence to be less than wholly truthful), and in Laurence’s own claim that “sorcery” led her to murder her progeny, disquieting impressions emerge about the intertwined forces at play here. Such complications are exacerbated by the tentative rapport struck by Rama and Laurence’s mother Odile Diata (Salimata Kamate), who attends the trial and seems torn between sympathy and scorn for her offspring.
Snapshots of Rama lying in bed, her hand on her belly and her countenance wracked by unease, convey her feelings of kinship with Laurence—and, in particular, her fear of impending parenthood and the possibility that she too might beget a toxic mother-daughter dynamic. Still, if those parallels are clear, Saint Omer remains an ambiguous character study, one that seeks empathy for Laurence even as it frustrates a wholly reliable notion of who she is, and why she’s committed this unthinkable crime. Diop’s camera gazes at Laurence and Rama in mesmerizing long-take close-ups as if struggling to see them, and it moves about the courtroom with revealing acuity—most notably, an early seesawing pan that captures the proceedings’ literal and figurative back-and-forth nature.
Rife with echoes linking the past and the present, Laurence and Rama, Saint Omer—taking a cue from its ancient spiritual source material—attempts to comprehend its infanticidal protagonist as a fiend, a victim, or perhaps some indecipherable combination of the two, created by a family, and society, that sought to strip her of autonomy. What ultimately emerges is a plea for understanding, both between the film’s mothers and daughters, and between us and Laurence. It’s this latter vein that Diop mines to powerful ends during her climax, staging the defense attorney’s closing argument as a to-the-camera speech that addresses the fundamental mystery of this tragedy—“Why?”—via the concept that all mothers and daughters share “chimeric cells” and, thus, “are terribly human monsters.” Questioning its viewers while leaving space for various responses and interpretations, Saint Omer proves a troubling portrait of the ties that bind, and the ways in which they sometimes strangle.