Film Review: “Saint Omer” — Medea Redux?

By Steve Erickson

Director Alice Diop wisely avoids offering a neat solution to Saint Omer‘s exploration of a mother who murders her child.

Saint Omer, directed by Alice Diop. Limited release as of January 13. Boston MFA Museum screening on February 19. Harvard Film Archive’s retrospective of Diop’s films from March 25 through April 10.

Kayije Kagame in Saint Omar.

Saint Omer, the French director Alice Diop’s feature film debut, reinforces her assertion that “all my films exist at the frontier where the two [fiction and documentary] meet.” (The five documentaries which built her reputation on the international festival circuit — Danton’s Death, Towards Tenderness, On Call, RER B,  We – are now streaming on MUBI.)  From one perspective, Saint Omer could be classified as a true crime narrative. It was inspired by Diop’s real-life fascination with the case of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant who killed her 15-month-old daughter by leaving her to drown on a beach. In Le Monde, Diop saw a surveillance camera photo of Kabou at Paris’ Gare du Nord.  She decided to travel to the French town of Saint-Omer to attend her trial. When there, she ordered a set to be built in the actual courthouse where Kabou had gone on trial. She shot the film with long takes based on the trial’s transcripts. The narrative was also shot in sequence, so the actors lived out the trial’s structure of events.

Diop also created a fictionalized alter ego, history professor Rama (Kayije Kagame). She spends each day at the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a young woman who immigrated to France from Senegal at the age of eight. Coly dropped out of college, where she had studied philosophy (studying Wittgenstein), and embarked on a relationship with a much older white man, Luc (Xavier Daly). Judging from his testimony in court, Luc could barely tolerate her presence. Married to another woman at the time, he refused to publicly acknowledge their relationship. Still, Luc allowed Coly to attend his daughter’s wedding and he helped her out after he impregnated her. Meanwhile,the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney mount pressure on Coly to tell her story in a way that makes sense. But her version of events never fully adds up. She claims not to understand her own behavior, even suggesting that she might’ve been influenced by sorcery. Her mother concurs. Rama appears to be far more happily assimilated into French life, but as she observes the trial she grows increasingly unsettled, seeing echoes of her own life.

To her credit, Diop has always treated the subjects in her films with great care. Towards Tenderness was based on interviews with young men about their experiences with love, sex, and women. But their faces were kept offscreen; actors sat silently at a café or drove through the red light district as the subjects’ voices played onscreen. The film digs beneath the surface of conventional machismo, such as talk about “bitches,” in order to have its subjects talk about the difficulty of growing up in a culture with no real models for a French version of Black masculinity. Similarly, Saint Omer avoids the sensationalism of true crime drama through its sympathy for Coly as well as its formal rigor. The director films three major scenes of testimony from different angles and camera positions. The first one emphasizes Coly’s uncertainty and anxiety. Her head is tilted to the side; even though the judge is offscreen, the young woman is clearly aiming her gaze in that direction.  The camera positions in the later testimony scenes move closer to Coly.

Rama evidently sees a great deal of herself in Coly. She’s a Black woman of Senegalese descent in a relationship with a white man. Four months pregnant when the trial begins, Rama suffers from morning sickness. Before she begins attending the trial, Saint Omer offers a glance into Rama’s professional life as an academic. As part of her lecture on Marguerite Duras and the film Hiroshima, Mon Amour, she shows students images of a French woman who was punished for collaboration during World War II. Diop’s framing of the lecture hall self-consciously mirrors her view of the courtroom. Rama is not on trial – in her job she teaches French history to college students. But the long shots of a room full of people looking at her are eerily similar to the images of Coly on trial.

Diop proves herself to be a master of pacing and timing. Frederick Wiseman’s courtroom films were no doubt models for Saint Omer, and she shares his skill at maintaining drama through long takes. Of course, Diop, unlike Wiseman, is working with actors, but Guslagie Malanda gives a remarkably natural performance that never settles on one interpretation of her character’s personality. Coly may be lying, delusional, or trapped in a limbo that mixes truth, fantasy, and willful distortion. To me, the latter seems most likely, but the film never indicates that we must arrive at a definitive explanation. In fact, Diop avoids presenting Saint Omer as a mystery with a neat solution. By the end, compared to the experience she’s going through, the question of Coly’s guilt seems almost irrelevant. Even her well-intentioned lawyers wind up patronizing her.

Inspired by the trial, Rama plans to write an article called “Medea Castaway.” She watches Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 Medea in her hotel. Saint Omer compares Coly’s plight with the classic Greek myth in which a mother betrays her maternal instincts and kills her children. It ends up questioning if that archetypal tragedy has all that much to say about the lives of contemporary women. The myth has been interpreted in various ways by feminists as well as playwrights ancient and modern (there are filmed versions by Lars von Trier as well as Pasolini). Up until the murders Medea had lived a full life with Jason — including a decade of marriage and giving birth to seven sons and a daughter. The Greek dramatists who adapted Medea’s story offered conflicting versions of how (and why) she came to murder her children. Saint Omer suggests that reducing the complexities of a woman’s life to a single violent act is itself a form of violence. Unlike the law, art does not need to pass judgment, a point that Euripides makes by having the gods whisk Media away from her vengeful human judges at the end of the play.

Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.

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