The trial of a Senegalese immigrant to France for killing her own child brings up many issues for a French writer of Senegalese origin.
Saint Omer is the first dramatic film by director Alice Diop, famous up until now in France as a director of documentaries. It’s inspired by Diop’s own experience, attending the trial of a woman in a town in northern France accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter. It wasn’t merely this criminal case that impelled Diop to make the film, but her own emotional reaction to it.
The main character is an author named Rama, played by Kayije Kagame, who has proposed to her publisher that she write a book about this case, and frame it through the Greek myth of Medea. Rama is black—her parents came from Senegal, and although she was born and raised in Paris, she knows how racial ideas can make her feel like an outsider in her own country. The young defendant in the trial, Laurence Coly, played by Guslagie Malanda, is a Senegalese immigrant who entered into a transactional type of relationship with an older married white man who she claims didn’t want their child. She admits leaving her daughter on a beach at high tide and walking away, after which the baby drowned. The astonishing thing is that she’s pleading not guilty, claiming that some relatives in Senegal had put a curse on her that caused her actions. Her complex story includes conflict with her mother, who in fact sits in a front row in the court room. Lack of trust caused her not to tell her mother that she was having a baby. In effect, as an undocumented immigrant she was completely isolated from anyone who might have helped her. She gave birth alone in her apartment, with not even a midwife present.
As the trial proceeds, Rama becomes more and more affected. As it happens, she is also with a white man, and she also has a difficult relationship with her own mother. Alone in her apartment in this town of Saint Omer, she broods, dreams, and remembers. The director, Diop, has a spare and rigorous style. She doesn’t try to jazz up the trial scenes—everything is filmed in a dry, straightforward manner. Even the flashbacks Rama has to memories of her childhood, when we witness her as a girl bewildered by her mother’s behavior, it’s presented as matter-of-fact. This is an unusual and very effective technique: the past is just as substantial a reality to our main character as the present.
Malanda’s performance as the defendant, Coly, is like the deadly stillness in the eye of a hurricane. Everyone speaking in the court must stand, including the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The one exception is the presiding judge, a woman, who sits and interrogates the defendant at length herself. For the most part Diop films everyone from straight ahead. The testimony, the details of Coly’s actions, the narrative of the killing, are all wrapped in the mystery of why—why exactly did this happen? The film deliberately doesn’t explain things, instead leaving the unexplainable out there for the viewer to deal with. At one point, Rama laments that she was so wrapped up in the tragic details of the defendant’s life, that she momentarily forgot to consider the child’s point of view.
Saint Omer (Diop has named her film after the town in which the trial occurs) creates an atmosphere of painful uncertainty. Like the real case it was based on, there is no easy answer, no logical solution by which to sum everything up. We must face the fact that there are things about life we will never completely understand.