Adama Diallo Tamba, AFI Fest, Alice Diop, Charlotte Clamens, Dado Diop, drama, film festivals, France, Guslagie Malanda, Kayije Kagame, Mariam Diop, movies, New York Film Festival, reviews, Saint Omer, Salimata Kamate, Thomas de Pourquery, TIFF, Toronto International Film Festival, Venice International Film Festival, Xavier Maly
January 1, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Alice Diop
French with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2016, in Paris and Saint-Omer, France, the dramatic film “Saint Omer” (based partially on a true story) features a cast of white and black people representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A writer/teacher becomes obsessed with attending the trial of a Senegalese immigrant woman accused of murdering her own toddler daughter.
Culture Audience: “Saint Omer” will appeal primarily to fans of courtroom dramas that reflect larger issues in society.
“Saint Omer” skillfully draws parallels between the gripping drama of a courtroom trial and how mothers are judged by society, when it comes to race, class and privilege. The movie is partially inspired by director Alice Diop’s real-life experiences of becoming obsessed with the case of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant woman accused in 2013 of killing her own baby girl by abandoning the infant on a beach at the rising tide in Berck-sur-Mer, France. Diop traveled from Paris to attend Kabou’s trial, which was held in Saint-Omer, France. Saint-Omer is located about 131 miles (211 kilometers), or a four-hour train ride, from Paris. It’s the same plot presented in “Saint Omer,” which was co-written by Diop, Marie N’Diaye and Amrita David.
“Saint Omer” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize. The movie then made the rounds at several other high-profile film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and AFI Fest. “Saint Omer” has been selected as France’s official entry for the Best International Feature Film for the 2023 Academy Awards. “Saint Omer” is also Diop’s first narrative feature film. She previously directed the 2022 documentary “La Permanence” and the 2016 documentary “We.”
“Saint Omer” opens in 2016, with the introduction of a Paris-based writer/teacher named Rama (played by Kayije Kagame), who teaches a film class and is also working on a novel. Rama and her supportive husband Adrien (played by Thomas de Pourquery) are happily married. She is also close to her two sisters Khady (played by Mariam Diop) and Tening (plauyed by Dado Diop) and their mother Seynabou (played by Adama Diallo Tamba), who are all of Senegalese heritage. The only hint of sadness in the family is when the family members look at old home videos and talk about Seynabou’s late father, who unexpectedly passed away of an unnamed illness. It’s mentioned when they watch these videos that he doesn’t look sick in the videos.
Rama’s world is about to be rocked to the core when she becomes caught up in getting the latest news about a 36-year-old Senegalese woman named Laurence Coly (played by Guslagie Malanda), who is accused of murdering her own 15-month-old daughter Adélaïde in 2015, by abandoning the child on a beach during a high tide. Laurence was raising Adélaïde as a single mother. The prosecution says the motive for this murder was that Ph.D. student Laurence didn’t want the burden of raising a child while working on her thesis.
Rama is struck by how much she and Laurence have in common, in terms of being Senegalese French women of the same age and educated with graduate degrees. Rama is also pregnant, but doesn’t reveal that information right away. And just like Laurence’s child, Rama’s child will be biracial, by having have a black mother and a white father.
Rama is compelled to attend the trial every day, so she travels to Saint-Omer by train, and she stays at a hotel for however long the trial will take place. She tells Adrien and her family that maybe the trial could be an inspiration for her next novel. However, it soon becomes obvious that Rama is going to the trial for more than just informational purposes or research. She’s going to see what kind of person Laurence is and how she will be treated by the criminal justice system in this trial. So much of Laurence’s case is subtly and not-so-subtly focused on how Laurence’s race and immigrant status might have affected what she’s been accused of doing.
The majority of screen time in “Saint Omer” consists of the trial proceedings, especially the riveting testimony of Laurence, who essentially tells her life story under questioning. It’s a story of a woman whose life is a mess of contradictions: She sought to gain social-status privilege but was also repelled by social-status privilege. She hates her dysfunctional relationship with her unavailable father, but she also got involved in a dysfunctional relationship with an unavailable older married man, who was the father of Adélaïde. She’s educated about the psychology of people but also ignorant about how she should treat her own mental-health issue of depression.
Laurence’s father Robert is a United Nations translator, who was in a relationship with Laurence’s mother for seven years, but they never married, and he ended the relationship to be with another woman. Robert financially supported Laurence up until a certain point, but he was never emotionally available to her, according to what Laurence says in her trial testimony. Laurence says that her single mother put a lot of pressure on her to succeed. In 1998, at the age of 18, Laurence moved from Senegal to France, because she wanted to get away from her parents.
Laurence’s ex-lover/Adélaïde father Luc Dumontet (played by Xavier Maly) and his wife Cécile Jobard (played by Charlotte Clamens) also testify in the trial. But it is Laurence’s testimony that captivates the courtroom spectators (and the viewers of “Saint Omer”) the most. Rama feels such a strong connection to Laurence, when Rama happens to see Laurence’s mother Odile Diatta (played by Salimata Kamate) randomly outside the courtroom, Rama impulsively strikes up a conversation with Odile and tries to get to know her better.
Malanda’s transfixing performance as Laurence is really the centerpiece of “Saint Omer,” because Rama’s story takes a backseat when the movie focuses on Laurence’s testimony. However, viewers get to see how this trial is affecting Rama when she goes back to her hotel room and has conversations with Adrien about it. Keeping her pregnancy a secret starts to take its toll. Rama eventually reveals in a powerful scene why she kept her pregnancy a secret. Kagame’s performance as Rama is very good, but Rama is not as complex as Laurence.
The underlying tone of “Saint Omer” asks viewers to pay attention to the clues of how people in the movie react to Laurence as a defendant in this case. There’s a stereotype that women who are accused of murdering their children usually have a financial motive, either because they can’t afford childcare or want to get insurance money. Laurence doesn’t fit that stereotype, so it adds fuel to the public’s fascination with her.
Laurence also doesn’t fit the stereotype of an underprivileged, undereducated “angry” black woman who gets accused of a violent crime. There are racial implications in how people react to Laurence’s demure image, eloquence in speaking and calm demeanor when she’s on the witness stand. Does it unnerve people that Laurence comes across as mournful and defeated instead of angry and defiant? And what does that say about how people think black women “should” act in the situation that Laurence is in during this trial?
By extension, Rama feels some of this racial judgment in Saint-Omer, a city that has a large population of working-class white people. How do many of these people feel when they encounter or see well-educated immigrants who are of a different race? The voir dire process shown in “Saint Omer” gives an insightful look into people’s attitudes among the pool of potential jurors before they even hear a word of testimony from Laurence.
The trial in “Saint Omer” is a symbol for larger issues of how the criminal justice system treats people of different races who are accused of the same crimes. Who deserves mercy and redemption? There are no easy answers, but there are patterns to how a defendant’s fate in the criminal justice system is largely determined by the defendant’s race and socioeconomic status. “Saint Omer” is also a thoughtful warning of what can happen when mental health problems go untreated, which is an issue that transcends all cultural boundaries.
Super LTD released “Saint Omer” in select U.S. cinemas for a one-week limited engagement on December 9, 2022. The movie’s release expands to more U.S. cinemas on January 13, 2023. “Saint Omer” was released in France on November 23, 2022.