It’s November 2013, and in the small town of Berck-sur-mer, in northern France, a 15-month old baby is found dead on a beach. It’s a particularly hard case for the local police, as there is no apparent reason behind the death of the child. No signs of violence, no migrant boats arrived in the previous days, no clue about how this tragic death might have taken place. During the course of their investigation, the police trace some strange movements back to a woman of Senegalese descent, who is arrested and put on trial for the murder of her daughter. The disturbing case caused an uproar in France, with the national press covering it in detail. Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, after the town where the trial took place, explores this case in close detail.
Rama is a writer. She’s strong and determined, and she has a strong interest in a trial that is taking place in the small town of Saint Omer. A woman named Laurence Coly is accused of murdering her own child by abandoning her at sea during high tide. The peculiarity of this case is that Laurence never denies killing her daughter Lili, actually she confesses to her crime at the beginning of the trial. So the question the judge, the prosecutor, even the defense counsel want to ask is a very simple one: why? Laurence tells her story: she left Senegal, where she led a relatively serene life, when she was 18, arriving in Paris. She started studying philosophy after a few years of employment, and she got in a relationship with a much older man, Mr. Dumontet, who fathered Lili. What happened to make Laurence do the terrible deed? She faults witchcraft from her family in Senegal, much to the judge’s and the prosecutor’s frustration. Reports and testimonies seem to contradict themselves, leaving doubts and ambiguities in all the parties involved, including the outside spectators. Rama, who is pregnant and has been following the trial from the start, seems to be particularly affected by Laurence’s story, and she starts reminiscing about her childhood, her relationship with her mother and motherhood in general.
Saint Omer is the fiction feature debut for Alice Diop, previously known for her documentaries. One might say that Saint Omer is a documentary itself, as it was shot in the courtroom where the real trial took place. It most certainly looks like one. During the trial sequences, which make up about 70% of the film, actors are filmed in very long takes with static shots that lay their faces and souls bare, with only the power of words to support them.
Yeah, words. Can we trust them? How many times have we watched a movie and heard “It’s my word against yours”? That definition perfectly applies to Saint Omer, a film that explores the complex nature of words. Can we trust them? Can we trust Laurence’s story? From the point of view of the law, she is a criminal that has to be incarcerated, but the film implies that this is just one way to look at her story. How was she as a mother? Was she a bad one? No, according to what her partner, the ambiguous and strangely disturbing Mr. Dumontet, says in his testimony. She was just not a good mother, she was also a good partner, just like she was a good student. Does that make her act more acceptable? No, but the movie tries to understand Laurence, even at her most seemingly absurd revelations. Witchcraft is cause for laughter and derision in the Western world (where people still consult the horoscope, clairvoyants and palm readers), an obvious culture clash that can generate devastating effects. Despite her studies, her interest in Western philosophy (she wanted to write a thesis on Wittgenstein), Laurence is still seen as a social and cultural outcast, both in France and in Senegal (she’s convinced that her aunt cast a curse on her and Lili for leaving her native country).
Laurence’s tale is touching as it is disturbing, both for us and for the rest of the characters. Rama is a stand-in for director Alice Diop, and you can tell how deeply affected she was by this story. There is one scene in particular that shows Rama running away from the courtroom in tears, confused by what she has heard, and the implications this story may have on her as a future mother. What kind of mother will she be? What kind of mother did she have? The trial acts as a major earthquake in her life. She observed it to prepare a modern adaptation of the myth of Medea (so much so that Diop interjects the story with small clips of Pasolini’s Medea), but she had her own convictions shattered, leaving her distraught. She has sudden recollections of her relationship with her mother, the awkward silences between them, their tumultuous rapport.
Malanda plays Laurence with spellbinding complexity, giving her an arresting ambiguity, while Kagame, with her stunning beauty and elegance and emotional transparency, manages to make Rama a three-dimensional character despite a very limited amount of dialogue. They, and all the other characters in the film, are observed by Alice Diop with a very naturalistic look, as if she was filming them in a real-life situation. She asks not to look at them judgingly, but to understand their actions. Are we, as spectators, able to do that?
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival.