Saint Omer: dry legal drama on dysfunctional parent-child relationships and the struggles of migrants in an alien culture

Alice Diop, “Saint Omer” (2022)

At first presenting as a dry courtroom drama cum psychological character study, “Saint Omer” turns out to be a compassionate work focusing on the struggles of migrants in adapting to the ways of their new home, and the racism and discrimination they often face, leading among other things to alienation, depression and bizarre behaviours that may result in tragedy, and on how dysfunctional relationships between parents and children can affect the children long after they have become adults and left the family nest. The film is based on the court case of Fabienne Kabou who was convicted of the murder of her 15-month-old child in 2013. Born into a wealthy family, Kabou moved to France from Senegal in her late teens to study architecture and philosophy in Paris; while there, she became romantically involved with a sculptor 30 years her senior and had a child with him. Kabou hid her pregnancy from her lover and gave birth to the baby on her own in their apartment; the baby was not registered with the authorities and not even Kabou’s mother or family in Senegal was informed of the birth. In 2013, Kabou took her baby to a coastal town and abandoned her on a beach where the child drowned overnight when the tide rose. Fishermen who discovered the baby’s corpse notified police and Kabou (by then back in Paris) was quickly found and arrested, and the woman confessed to abandoning the baby. At her 2016 trial, Kabou claimed that she had been affected by sorcery and witchcraft in abandoning the baby. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to undergo psychological counselling and treatment.

Director Alice Diop attended Kabou’s trial and her experience is mirrored in the film by the character of Rama (Kayije Kagame), a successful French-Senegalese novelist / lecturer who plans to write about the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) through a retelling of the Greek legend of Medea who murdered her children after being abandoned by her lover and their father Jason. As Coly is interrogated by the judge (Valérie Dréville) and the prosecuting and defending lawyers, Rama is struck and disturbed by similarities in her life and Coly’s life so far. Like herself, Coly is in a mixed-race relationship, and seems to have had a troubled relationship with her parents as a child. Just as Coly had a baby, so too Rama is pregnant at the time she attends Coly’s trial. Hearing Coly’s recounting of her childhood and the privileged life she led in Senegal and France compared to her French-Senegalese peers, Rama remembers her own childhood and the distant relationship between herself and her mother, and being confronted by her childhood memories brings her much anxiety and fears that she too might become an inadequate and uncaring mother to her unborn child. It becomes obvious to viewers as it does to Rama that she could have easily ended up in Coly’s position of being alone in Paris, subject to racist discrimination, and living in less than desirable economic and social circumstances with a married man and having a child her family might not approve of.

The film’s dry and minimalist style throws all emphasis on dialogue and character to drive the film and make it worthy of viewer attention, and in this respect Kagame and Malanda both do sterling work. That the role of Rama is also Kagame’s debut as an actor is all the more remarkable. Silence is an important part of both actors’ roles and in this, using silence to portray emotion that the characters themselves may not be aware of, Kagame and Malanda excel. Perhaps it is significant that Malanda’s character was writing a thesis on the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein whose famous work “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” includes the proposition “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. Other actors in the film do fine work in their roles, in particular Dréville as the presiding judge.

The film passes no judgement on Coly (and through her, on Kabou) and deliberately omits the jury’s verdict and the judge’s sentencing, leading to an ambiguous conclusion in which Rama comes to some sort of accommodation with her mother, accepting that (try as she might) she will never be able to speak with her mother because her mother refuses to talk to her. Why that should be so is never made clear but film flashbacks and snippets of an old family Christmas part suggest that the mother felt trapped in her role as a wife and mother. Much of the film’s power comes from what is left deliberately unsaid, forcing audiences to make inferences in order to make sense of the film. Likewise, the film’s characters must make sense of what has transpired during the trial and carry on with their lives and with the messes and tragedies that they others create, and the consequences that arise and which must be dealt with or endured.