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film review

Kayije Kagame plays Rama, a literature professor and novelist who travels from Paris to Saint Omer to observe the trial of Laurence Coly and write about the case.Courtesy of Films We Like

  • Saint Omer
  • Directed by Alice Diop
  • Written by Alice Diop and Amrita David
  • Starring Guslagie Malanda, Kayije Kagame and Valérie Dréville
  • Classification PG; 122 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Jan. 20, including the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto

Critic’s Pick

In 2016, French documentarian Alice Diop attended the trial of Fabienne Kabou, a woman who was on trial for murder over the death of her 15-month-old daughter. The facts of the case were not in dispute: Kabou travelled from Paris to the coastal town of Berck-sur-Mer, made her way down to the beach, and then left her child to drown in the waves. It was afterward that the wrinkles of the situation began to appear, as the courts and media tried to answer the seemingly simple-but-impossible question of: Why?

Even Kabou, a highly intelligent and educated woman of Senegalese origin, didn’t have an answer. There was a defence of witchcraft, discussion of evil voices, but also evidence of the single mother feeling isolated and alone. As Kabou told the court, “Nothing makes sense in this story. What interest could I have in tormenting myself, lying, killing my daughter? I spoke of sorcery and I’m not joking. Even a stupid person would not do what I did.”

In an attempt to answer, or at least explore, that vexing question of “why,” Diop has returned to the infamous case by lightly fictionalizing it with her powerful and provocative narrative feature debut, Saint Omer. The basics of Kabou’s story remain the same, albeit transferred to the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a Senegalese woman who travelled from Paris to the town of the title expressly with the purpose of murdering her young daughter. Diop recreates her own experience with the proceedings, too, by having the newly pregnant novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame) sit in on Kabou’s court case, ostensibly as research/inspiration for her book connecting the crime to the Greek myth of Medea, the sorceress who murdered her own sons.

Guslagie Malanda plays Laurence Coly, a student and Senegalese immigrant accused of leaving her 15-month-old daughter on a beach to be swept away by the tide in Berck.Courtesy of Films We Like

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Soon, though, Rama’s neat literary comparison falls apart as Coly’s testimony reveals a truth – a version of the truth, more like – that challenges notions of autonomy, motherhood, imagination, and superstition.

Shot with the kind of unblinking eye that defined her non-fiction work (including the award-winning 2020 doc Nous), Diop’s film balances extended sequences of Coly’s testimony inside the courtroom with shorter snippets of Rama’s life outside of it. Whereas Coly is, up to a point, eerily calm and collected as she recounts a life of loneliness and instability, the seemingly established and comfortable Rama is perpetually moments from falling apart altogether. Whether that is because Rama fears that she, too, could become a mother like Coly or because of the lingering effects of some other, almost imperceptible trauma in her past, isn’t quite resolved – an ambiguity that Diop intentionally drapes over the entirety of her film.

Just as neat answers evaded Kabou’s case, so, too, are they in short supply in Saint Omer. But this is a feature, not a bug: by letting the so-called facts of the shocking act hang in the air for everyone – the lawyers, the media, the family of the victim, the curious onlookers like Rama – to interpret, Diop’s film revels in the enigmatic power of uncertainty.

This complicated mission is aided by a pair of tremendous lead performances from Malanda and Kagame, two women who never share a single scene together yet ultimately convey a startling sense of connectivity and intimacy. There is one moment in particular toward the film’s end – when Coly finally allows herself a moment to fully take in her circumstances – that feels so visceral and genuine that you would easily believe Malanda was starring in one of Diop’s own docs, not this polished and scripted retelling.

Whether, in making Saint Omer, Diop has found the answers that she’s been searching for since 2016 remains an open question. But the truth of the film is that she has certainly compelled her audience to take a complicated, fraught, and harrowing journey of their own. That should be enough of an answer, for now.